Read DeadOnMyFeet.pdf text version

Dead On My Feet

by Cesca Marie

Table of Contents

1. Jan 19 to 23...............................................................................1 2. Jan 25 to 30.............................................................................. 7 3. Jan 30 to Feb 6........................................................................11 4. Feb 7 to 14............................................................................... 21 5. Feb 14 to 22............................................................................. 26 6. Feb 22 to 28.............................................................................37 7. March 2 to 9............................................................................ 45 8. March 9 to 15..........................................................................65 9. March 13 to 21........................................................................73 10. March 21 to 30..................................................................... 97 11. March 31 to April 4............................................................ 10 1 12. April 2 to 8.......................................................................... 129 13. April 9 to 15........................................................................ 159 14. April 16 to 21...................................................................... 184 15. April 20 to 24......................................................................198 16. April 24 to 28......................................................................221 17. April 24 to 28 II.................................................................. 236 18. April 29 to May 3............................................................... 263 19. May 3 to 10......................................................................... 279 20. May 11 to 15....................................................................... 302 21. May 16 to 20....................................................................... 323 22. May 20 to 22...................................................................... 337 23. May 23 to 26.......................................................................351 24. May 26 to 29.......................................................................371 25. May 29 to 30...................................................................... 384 26. Alice.....................................................................................395 27. Emmett................................................................................ 409 28. May 30 to June 3................................................................416 29. June 3 to 4.......................................................................... 423 30. June 4 to 6.......................................................................... 426 31. June 7 to 8.......................................................................... 438 32. June 9 to 11........................................................................ 444 33. June 12 to 17...................................................................... 453 34. June 17................................................................................463 35. June 20 to 21......................................................................473 36. A Year Gone By.................................................................. 80 4

1. Jan 19 to 23

Monday

Even sitting in the back corner of the room, in the farthest desk from student traffic and the teacher's line of sight, it is possible to be the centre of attention. The really curious thing about it is that I can be invisible at the same time. No one likes to look at seriously ill people. It's awkward. It might be catching. It might happen to you some day, and that ruins the happy reality of today. That's the invisible bit. But every other student in this class is hyperaware that I'm here, even if they don't look at or talk to me, because in a place they don't acknowledge they're afraid I'm going to drop dead at any second. Technically, I'm in remission. I say technically because I still feel like shit. Even after the cancer is gone, there's a lot of healing to do. Napalm-strength drugs damage practically everything, and even the most benign treatments are physically taxing. I lay my head down on the lab table. Class hasn't started yet, and none of my teachers tell me to straighten up and pay attention anymore. Like lifting my head might kill me. Fourth period biology is my worst class. It used to be my best. Now all the practical labs are torture; the formaldehyde-soaked samples we use smell so bad my stomach turns every time. This class is right after lunch, too, at the time of day when I'm sure to either feel nauseous or tired or both. That's part of the strategic appeal of the back corner seat: 1. It's out of everyone's line of sight 2. It's right next to the window, so I can lay my head down on the table and nap in the sun like a cat 3. There's a sink right behind me. Lunch has reappeared a few times. 4. It's farthest from the storage unit with the foul-smelling chemicals Class starts right on the bell. We have a new student today, from Arizona. Who in their right mind would leave the sun for a place like this? I clear away the books I've carelessly dumped on the other side of my lab table. It's going to be our lab table now; it's the only free seat for her. I figure it'll be less awkward for her if we don't talk, so I don't even say hello. If I don't look at her, she won't stare at me. Luckily, it's a lecture day, and we don't have to work together on a lab practical. The lights go off, the overhead projector goes on, and the class gets a series of transparencies to copy. I make an effort at the first two, and then give up and put my head down. I'll just read the textbook later. Maybe. If I get around to it. I'm pretty sure I'm failing this class anyway. I haven't completed a lab practical in months. Today is a particularly trying day, and I leave last period halfway through to go hang out in the nurse's office. It says something when you've got your 'own' cot in there. The nurse isn't in her office right now - probably lecturing the health classes about hygiene or something ­ so I turn off the lights and make myself comfortable. It seems too short a time later that Alice is pulling my blanket off. That girl has a preternatural sense of when I'm having a really awful day. "Come on," she says. "Emmett's illegally parked."

Tuesday

Tuesday morning starts off on a really annoying repetitive note. Luckily, alarm clocks are equipped with snooze buttons. 1

"Don't you dare hit snooze again!" Mom yells up the stairs. Stupid morning people with their stupid morning energy. I drag myself out of bed and head for the bathroom. I leave the light off and turn on the shower. I like to shower in the dark because it's like an extra five minutes of sleep. That, and it's easier on the old ego. This room used to be Alice's. Mine used to be down the hall, and Emmett and I shared an adjoining bathroom. The trade was her idea. She sensed how important it was to me to have a private bathroom when I got sick. The mirror is fogged up by the time I get out of the shower. I don't wipe it off. I don't need to look at myself today. I put on clothes that used to fit but are now too big. Thank God for chilly weather. It gives me an excuse to cover up a lot of skin. There's something distinctly odd about a person with no hair on their arms and legs. It's a curious thing, what hair remains and what falls out after chemotherapy. He obvious stuff went quick: head, eyebrows, eyelashes, facial hair. I lost by body hair in patches. The only hair that remains, like some sick joke, are the fine hairs on my second knuckles and enough stray pubic hairs to make me look like a thirteen year old boy. Wigs itch like hell. Hats are a better alternative, if you're not too vain about having hair. I've got a drawer full of toques now, mostly homemade. My crafty little sister knit me one during my first round of chemo, and I guess she got a kick out of being useful and creative at once, and kept churning them out. I've got a toque in every color ­ and she gives me hell if I don't match the damn things to whatever I'm wearing. Today's selection is black, because I already feel like being an asshole and it's not even eight-o-clock. Like my hat is a fucking mood ring. I am feeling exactly like hell by the time I get to biology. Lunch isn't sitting well. I hope we don't have a lab practical today. I just shut my eyes, try to remain completely still, block out the noise of the class, and pray a little mantra in my head that I don't vomit. New Girl sits down next to me. Jeez, does she have to jostle the table like that? "You okay?" "Fine." Fuck off. "Here." I crack an eyelid and she slides a few papers across the table. She's typed up yesterday's notes. "I saw you didn't finish writing, so..." "Thanks." "I'm Bella." I turn and hurl into the sink. It feels like more comes back up than I swallowed today at lunch. How is that even possible? The class shuts up faster than fucking Jonas Brothers tickets sell out. People swivel in their seats to see what's going on, like they can't figure it out. New Girl hands me a Kleenex and turns on the faucet. "Isn't this just fascinating?" she says brightly, and the other cretins all turn back to their own affairs. Fuckers. "Peas?" she guesses. "Lime Jell-O." Who the hell asks a question like that? This class isn't a lab practical, but I nearly wish it were. We're given our term assignments. We have to work in pairs over the next few weeks, so I can't ignore the girl who just watched me puke and then tried to talk about it. We're replicating Mendel's pea plant experiment. This is going to be fucking dull. 2

Contrary to what Alice thinks, it is totally possible to tell when she's gone off her Ritalin. She can barely sit still and fiddles with her seatbelt on the ride home. "So guess what?" "Forty-two," Emmett says. I suspect he might have cracked a book sometime in the past fortnight. Or it could just be a coincidence. "Student Council picked a date for the spring dance." Alice is practically vibrating in the front seat. Should I tell her there's a RedBull in the glove box? She starts talking a mile a minute about themes and colors and stuff, so Emmett turns on the radio. She makes a valiant attempt to talk over it, even when he maxes out the volume. The second we get home she puts on her hard-done-by whine and says, "Momeeee, Em's being mean to me!" "She's lying!" "If nobody's bleeding, I don't want to know," Mom calls from the second floor. Gotta love her parenting style. She thinks conflict is character building.

Wednesday

Lunch is always pretty boring. I sit with Alice most days, on the edge of her little group of friends. I don't talk much. We didn't move here long before I got sick, and I didn't meet a lot of people before treatment kept me out of school and I became the elephant in the room. At the moment, I survive on water, fruit juice, yogurt and Jell-O. Everything else upsets my stomach and tastes like bitter cough syrup. Everything tasted like metal during chemo, and now that it's over everything tastes too bitter or too sweet, so I can't eat much without feeling nauseated. I sit there and contemplate which Jell-O cup to open first: cherry or lime? "Just eat the cherry first, you know you want to," Alice says. If she didn't sound annoyed, she might sound like Satan in a tempting mood. "Not hungry." She tries to swipe my cherry Jell-O and I snatch it back. Her bullshit radar is entirely too good. "I'll make milkshakes when we get home," she says. That makes me smile and takes the bitter edge off the Jell-O. Alice figured out a kick-ass mix for juice and yogurt milkshakes during my second round of napalm, and made an addict out of me. She uses them to bargain with me like I'm an unruly child. And I'm stupid enough to keep falling for it. "I don't mind doing most of the work," Arizona says. We're divvying up the workload for our term project. "But you're not allowed to be a jerk." "Oh, anything but that." I really shouldn't push my luck with sarcasm. I'm lucky enough not to have a grade-grubbing lab partner who would bitch about me not pulling my weight. She's compassionate enough to take my fatigue into account. But it still feels lousy to be given an easy ride because she feels sorry for me. "You're doing it again." "You'd be in a bad mood too if you felt like shit." "You have the worst attitude." I hate it when strangers pretend to know me. I start to write stuff down on our lab sheet as she sets up the plant jars and other equipment. I don't believe she's really from Arizona. She doesn't even have a hint of a tan. "Why are you staring at me?" "Does it bother you?" 3

"Depends why you're staring." "You're not really from Arizona, are you?" "You don't really have cancer, do you?" That makes me smile, which throws her off. "Actually, I don't." She sizes me up like she thinks I'm full of shit. I can't tell by her face if she decides I am or not, but she smiles sweetly and tells me she likes my hat. "I like your hair." "You're trying to make this awkward on purpose, aren't you?" "What gave you that idea?" She dumps a Ziploc of potting soil in front of me and tells me to start measuring.

Thursday

Biology is starting to become a weird part of the day. I still feel tired and sick and cranky at the end of lunch, but my lab partner is the only person besides Alice who talks to me at school. It's kind of nice, except for the fact that I can't stand her. "You look better today." "Do I?" Like I give a fuck what she thinks. "Why do you say that?" "You're sitting up, for one." "Har har." Bitch. Arizona starts to set up the microscope. We're taking cross sections of bean seeds today and looking at the cell tissue as compared to dried peas. I just sit there and let her do all the work of setting up. She doesn't ask for help. "I dare you to eat a raw bean." "After you." She takes one out of the experiment tray and holds it out to me. I want to do it just to be a smartass, but anything more solid than yogurt will cause serious pain. My stomach hurts just thinking about it. "Maybe later." She smirks and turns back to the lab setup. Damn it, she thinks she won. I'm sulking a bit as I write our information at the top of the lab form. My normally dry hands are sweaty. "Is it warm in here?" "You're wearing a sweater and a hat," she says. She's focused on the microscope, trying to adjust the lens properly. "I dunno if I'm gonna make it through class today." "Will I get to guess what you had for lunch again?" I don't have a good enough comeback for that one, so I just fold my arms on the table and lay my head down. But the surface of the lab table smells like whatever they were using last period, and I sit right back up again. Jell-O feels like a rock in my stomach. I just prop my head in my hands and lean my elbows on the tabletop. Breathe in - breathe out. Don't puke. Don't puke. Don't give her anything to guess at, like misery is a fucking game. Arizona puts a hand on my back. "I can walk you to the nurse's office, if you want." "I'm alright." Actually, I don't trust myself to stand up right now. She rubs little circles on my back with one hand and does our entire assignment with the other. It's just a few slides to identify and a lab form to fill out. "You don't have to keep doing that," I say of her hand. "Do you want me to knock it off?" I don't answer, because asking her to keep going sounds 4

pathetic. It's sort of amazing what being touched will do for a person during illness. It certainly makes a case for Jesus' laying-on-of-hands miracles. She takes her hand off me when the teacher comes around to check our progress. He can see I'm not doing anything and he suggests I go to the nurse's office. "Maybe later." I last through the rest of the day without retreating to the nurse's office. I don't last the entire car ride home without getting sick, though. Thankfully I haven't got a big evening planned. Just three hours in a clinic recliner, hooked up to dialysis. Yes, I know, I lead a gripping life.

Friday

Thank God it's Friday, and thank Alice for delicious milkshakes. She made me a thermos-full for lunch today. It's worth noting that she only did it to apologize, though. I passed out on the couch last night and she drew eyebrows on me. Witch. Is it pathetic that the high point of my day is a mango milkshake? Don't answer that. All of you is pathetic, dipshit. Alice's friends are all on the social planning committee. Lunch talk these days consists of the same things that go on in their official meetings: the spring dance, themes, budget, dress code, blah, blah, blah. Twenty minutes of this shit and I can't take it anymore. "I'm going for a walk." "Where?" "Nowhere, mom." I go out to the parking lot end up sitting in the car with the windows rolled up against the cold drizzle. I guess it's too much to ask for snow in January. Some walk. Shut up. Fuck you. My ipod comes out and the earphones go in to tune out the world. I'd blast the radio, but Emmett is very protective of the tuner in his car and earphones are much better for what I need right now. I can think of a few people who would take the piss out of me if they knew I listened to Tchaikovsky for fun. The 1812 Overture is anger with finesse. Just one big fuck-it-all in perfect music. I hear the bell ring through my earphones but make no move to get out of the car. The warning bell rings, and I hear an annoying little elf knocking on the passenger window. I crack an eyelid and sure enough, it's Alice tapping on the glass. She opens the door and looks down on my with a hand on her hip. "Are you going to class or what?" "But mom." She tugs at my sleeve. "Come on. You'll fail junior year and end up in my classes. Please, spare me the humiliation." "I'm tired." "No milkshakes for a week." So I drag my ass out of the car. I really should hold her down one of these days and torture the recipe out of her. When I have the strength. Six or seven months from now. The biology room smells like floor cleaner. It's the same industrial brand they use at the hospital, which, unfortunately, smells like home to me. Fucking hell. I dump my books on the lab table and take my seat. I'm one of the last ones to arrive, but Arizona 5

isn't here yet. Fuck me if she's absent. Ripping on her is the only thing that makes this class worth it anymore. I should really stop thinking of her as Arizona. I heard Mike I-am-such-a-twat Newton call her that the other day, like some sort of pet name. One: I will not sink to Newton's level of wit. Two: if I think it, I might accidentally call her that one of these days, thereby violating my first reason for not thinking of her by her place of origin. Do you ever think you might be over-thinking? Bella makes it past the threshold at the exact moment the bell rings. Our assignment today is the write-up for the history of Mendel's experiments, including punnet squares tracing his research to the twenty-fifth generation. I'll just fall asleep now and save the time, thanks. Bella, as usual, takes the initiative. She opens her book and scribbles a few notes before asking, "So what are you doing this weekend?" "What's it to you?" "I'm being friendly." "Well knock it off." "Fuck you and your bad mood, Cullen." I hate to admit it, but that response has a nice ring to it. "So what are you doing this weekend?" She looks at me like she isn't sure whether she should strangle me or shank me with a pen. "Entertaining some friends. There's a football game on." "Bullshit you're into football." "No. But my dad is." She smirks at me. I don't like it. "Nice hat." "Nice tits." "You're such a shit." "Are you going to buckle down and do our homework or what?" I nod to the open book on the table. "I think a brain-damaged monkey could do this, so you definitely can too." She drops the textbook in front of me. "It's my turn to do nothing." She slouches down in her seat and begins to doodle on her notebook. "You trust me with your grade?" "No. I just relish the thought of your smug face twisted up in concentration." "I'm not dumb, you know." She gives me this really? look, waiting for me to get cracking on the write-up. Fucking hell. I pull the book closer and take out a pen. I used to get A's in this class, damn it. I can pull off another one and show this cow.

6

2. Jan 25 to 30

Monday

I park near the entrance to the parking lot. It's icy, and with or without snow chains, I don't trust myself or my truck to navigate a slippery parking lot. Arizona might have felt like the surface of the sun, but at least I didn't have to deal with icy roads there. I tread carefully towards the school. Twenty meters ahead, a skinny little girl is skating on a patch of black ice. She's spinning and hopping along like the ice poses no danger, only to get hit in the face by a snowball. She gives a little shriek of indignation. "Edward!" I didn't notice him, but now that she's yelled at him, I see my lab partner walking along the line of cars. He's clearly the snowball culprit; he's still wiping snow off his gloves. And the bastard doesn't look a bit sorry, either. He's grinning like an idiot. Holy shit, he can smile? You know, he's sort of...beautiful. The little skater begins to stomp off in the direction of the science building. A second snowball hits her between the shoulder blades. That one was thrown by a big guy who looks like he could be a football player. The little skater waves a pink-gloved bird at the two of them and disappears into the science building. I don't see the Axis of Annoying until after lunch. He's already at the lab table when I enter for biology, staring out the window. Despite the cold, it's sunny today, and the light on his face makes him look worse. He's paler than I am and those dark circles under his eyes make his illness obvious. I wonder what he meant when he said he didn't have cancer. "How was your weekend?" He doesn't even look away from the window. "I solved world hunger." "Bullshit." "Oh, ye of little faith." "You realize that solving world hunger would mean you'd be doing something good for a change?" "Ah, but there's the kicker: I destroyed my solutions." He finally looks away from the window and gives me this cocky smirk. "Malevolence 101, Swan." "Did you finish the write-up from Friday?" He opens his under-used notebook and takes out a few typewritten pages. I skim them as we wait for class to start. Wow, the jackass might actually have a brain. This is brilliant.

Tuesday

The pea plants have sprouted. We have to measure every bit of them. Mr. Banner's lab form even has spots for the width of the first leaves. I can't shake the feeling that this is just busy work, but I still do it. My only talent is schoolwork. Jackass is content to let me do all the work, as usual. He condescendingly informs me that I should do the measuring because I have small hands. "You're such a jerk," I mutter. I wouldn't mind doing the majority of the work if he wasn't so nasty 7

about it. I can have compassion for his illness, but my patience is in limited supply. "No, really," he says. "If your tits were just a few sizes bigger, you'd have a promising porn career." "I hope you choke on your own vomit." For some reason he finds that funny. I'm not going to give him the pleasure of asking why, but he reads the question in my face and informs me that it's a sign I'm running out of comebacks when I go for the obvious insult. "That wasn't obvious. The bottom leaf is five millimeters wide." He makes a note of that on our lab form. "Obvious is calling you Uncle Fester." He doesn't have a comeback for that one. Either he's run out of material, or I've hit a sore spot. "The second leaf is three millimeters wide." He's sulking hard, but writes the number down. "Your sweater is atrocious." "So is that comeback."

Wednesday

I'm in a good mood when I wake up, and not even the bad weather can ruin it. It's Charlie's birthday, and the Blacks will be coming over for what constitutes a family dinner. I've had steaks marinating since yesterday. I get to hang out with Jake ­ he's the most genuine of my new friends. Nothing ever feels put on with him. Not even biology with my twat of a lab partner can sully my good mood, though he makes a valiant effort. He's still sulking about yesterday, but thankfully he gives up halfway through the period and falls asleep on the table. I don't bother to wake him up when the bell rings. After dinner, Charlie and Billy head over to the TV. I don't remember what game is supposed to be on. Jake and I go out to the back porch with hot chocolate and hang out while the twilight fades. "So what are you doing this weekend?" The question makes me laugh, but I don't feel particularly amused. "What?" "Nothing. I'm not doing anything this weekend. You just reminded me of something my lab partner said." "What'd she say?" "My lab partner's a he. And a jerk. He said I had porn star hands the other day." I extend my fingers and Jake pretends to inspect them. "He might have a point." I swat his shoulder. "I got the last word in, though. It doesn't matter much, I guess. He's always in a bad mood. I do most of our lab work because he's tired a lot. He's got cancer." Jake's eyebrows go up. "You're not talking about Dr. Cullen's kid, are you?" "Edward Cullen, yeah. You know him?" Jake shrugs. "I know of him. That family moved to the area about a year ago. It was sort of a big deal at the time, I guess because people were jealous. He's a doctor, she's an architect, three good looking, over achieving kids. They're like cut outs of the American dream." "Edward's definitely not an over-achiever." "I heard he was in the National Honor Society. Or maybe that was one of their other kids." "Must be." Although, he did write a pretty good report for our term project. Or maybe he bought it off the internet.

8

Thursday

"This is such bullshit," Edward complains as he looks into the microscope. I've forced him to take a turn at labeling slides while I transplant the sprouts into a larger row of pots. It was his idea that I do that part. The skin on his hands is really dry and he has lots of little cuts and cracks on his fingers; not suitable for handling dirt. He wanted me to do it all, but I'm having none of that today. "Hey, if you don't have cancer, how come you're getting sick all the time?" "Because," he says scathingly, "cancer treatment isn't like cold medicine. It doesn't cycle out of your system in twenty-four hours." "What kind of cancer did you have, anyway?" "None of your damn business, that's what kind." "So how long does it take for the drugs to cycle out of your system?" "Depends on the drug," he answers vaguely. "A few days. A few weeks. Maybe a few months." "When will your hair grow back?" He glares at me bitterly. "Fuck off, Swan."

Friday

Lunch is going to be tricky for the next few weeks. The posters announcing the spring dance went up today, and all my new friends are excited about it. I guess it's a big deal in small towns like this. Jessica, Angela and Lauren are into it. They're already making plans to go dress shopping. I'm trying to hide by propping up my math textbook and lurking behind it. Maybe they won't see me and I won't be roped into shopping or ­ gulp ­ dancing. I do not dance. Ever. I'm an occupational hazard where any sort of coordinated movement is involved. I could just focus on my guy friends, but they're equally enthusiastic. Stupid small towns. Mike asks me if I'm thinking of going. No, I will not go with you. "I'm busy that night." "With what?" Rude much? "I'm visiting my grandma." I conveniently forget to mention that she's dead and that her headstone doesn't make good conversation. "You can't see her some other time?" "No. It's her birthday." Now shut up before this lie gets out of hand. "I take it that you're going?" Mike shrugs. "I was thinking about it. But if you want some company, I could visit your grandma with you." "No, thanks." "You sure?" "I wouldn't have said it if I wasn't." "Well, maybe I'll see you after." This guy does not give up. I guess he never learned how to take a hint. "Maybe." I turn back to my book, trying to concentrate on trig, but a snicker from the next table distracts me. I look over and see Cullen about ten feet away, eating with the little ice skater. He sees me looking at him and winks. Fucking hell, biology is going to suck. The first words my lab partner says to me when I get to biology are, "Grandma's birthday? You couldn't come up with anything better than that?" "It is her birthday." "You are the worst liar." 9

"Mike bought it." Cullen looks at me with this condescending smirk and shakes his head. "He wanted to buy it. It's easier on his ego than the alternative." "I hate you." "Because I'm right." I don't get a chance to respond to that before Mr. Banner calls the class to order, and the twat beside me smiles smugly like he's won. It's only after we're doing independent seatwork that I get a chance to make another jab at him. I start to hum the Addams Family theme song low enough so that only we can hear. He pulls his hat lower over his ears, trying to block me out, but I can tell I'm still getting to him. He's taking out his frustration on his pen and notepad.

10

3. Jan 30 to Feb 6

Friday

When we get home I don't even bother to say hello to Mom before going to my room. I crawl across the duvet and collapse into the pillows. I've been craving this since I got up this morning. Mom must have washed my sheets today. They're smooth and smell like the inside of the dryer. Three days from now they'll have the smell of dead skin and stale chemical on them. I don't like the silence of my room, so I roll over to turn on some music. My CD player beeps to let me know the tray is empty. That thieving little elf. She insults my taste in music and then steals my CDs the very next day. Maybe I'll play my own music. I haven't practiced in a few days. But first a hot shower is in order. My joints are aching. I strip down and go to the closet for my bathrobe. There's a mirror on the inside of the closet door. The guy staring back at me looks like the pictures of Auschwitz inmates in my history textbook. It's easy to believe that isn't me because he looks so different. He's thirty pounds lighter than I am. I've got thick hair that never lies flat, and he's got none at all. I don't have a central line sticking out of my chest, but this sad fucker does. I'm good looking. I'm popular. This guy looks like a stiff breeze could kill him and he has to sit with his fifteen year old sister at lunch for company. The only thing that looks the same are the eyes, which I ignore. They're a little yellow around the sclera, but the look of them is the same. They're the only evidence of the real me inside this imposter. Who are you kidding? I close the closet and go to use the washroom. My penis hangs between my legs like a limp slug. I don't think the rest of the treatment's side effects would seem so bad if I still had some semblance of a sex drive. A five second orgasm would be a welcome break during the day. But I haven't wanted to in awhile, and I certainly haven't had the energy. And just the thought of any kind of repetitive motion makes me nauseous. Maybe it's a blessing that treatment chased my sex drive away. It would be awful to be horny and trapped in a body that looks like Uncle Fester on a hunger strike. No one would be interested in fucking a guy like that. You mean like you, genius. "Oh fuck off." There's a knock at the door. I slip into my bathrobe to answer it. Alice is on the other side, rocking back and forth on her feet. "I'm making milkshakes. Do you want peach or raspberry?" "Whatever. Doesn't matter." She looks me up and down from bald head to bare toes. I'm swimming in a bathrobe that used to fit perfectly. She looks at me like she knows exactly what's on my mind and opens her arms with a sad expression. "Don't do that," she says with a pout in her voice. Her short arms can wrap all the way around my middle with extra left over. "What?" "You're not ugly," she says in a scolding tone. "Who said I was?" "You were beating yourself up. I know you were." She flicks me between the eyes. "Is this about 11

biology?" "Did you steal my Tea for the Tillerman CD?" "Maybe, possibly, probably, sort of." "Don't get cocky with my things just because you make a good milkshake." She smiles and lets go of my waist. "I'll make raspberry." She skips away down the hall toward the kitchen, and I go for a shower. By the time I turn the water off she's returned my CD and pressed play. The first thing I hear is a guitar riff and the end of the chorus: And don't be shy, just let your feelings roll on by... Her timing is scary. That night I wake up feeling like I'm not alone. This happens once or twice a week. When Mom can't sleep she comes in here and watches me. I pretend I don't know because it's just easier that way. It sucks knowing that I'm a high on her list of reasons why she can't sleep. My illness took her time and her money and broke her heart many times over, and even though it's over now, it still robs her of sleep. I just lie there and breathe deeply, letting her think that I'm asleep until I actually am. When I wake up in the morning, she's back in her own bed, cuddled next to Dad while he sleeps off the fatigue of a night shift at the hospital.

Saturday

My parents are the sort of people who are impossible to imagine in any other context than with each other. If you talk to them, it's like their memories started the day they met. Nothing before that point in time matters, except that it led to their meeting. I feel the need to mention that the only thing my dad knows how to cook is pancakes. Honestly. I don't mean pancakes are the only thing he cooks well, I mean pancakes are the only thing he cooks, full stop. I've seen him screw up boiled hotdogs. When we were kids and Mom had to go out in the evenings, we always had pancakes for dinner, unless Mom took pity on us and put leftovers aside. Dad can safely work a microwave ­ most days. It should also be noted that this is the same man who has a license to perform open-heart surgery. Saturday mornings are Dad's day to make breakfast. By the time I get downstairs Emmett is already on his seventh pancake. He pauses to chew every two bites. Dad's gotten fancy today and decided to add blueberries. Alice's pancake looks like a culinary abortion. "You up for a pancake?" he asks me. I shake my head and grab the yogurt out of the fridge. After breakfast I lie on the couch in the den and wait for the nausea-inducing sugar crash. My days are just one never-ending cycle of feeling shitty and waiting to feel shitty. Alice has the TV on. It's set to the morning news, but she's not watching; she's browsing for a movie to watch. "If you put Harry Potter on again I will kill you." "Did I ask for your input?" She sewed herself a set of Hogwarts robes last year "for Halloween" and says it "helps her concentrate" to fiddle about with a toy wand. But I'd be willing to overlook those eccentricities without teasing her if she didn't play the movies at least twice a week, reciting every line in sync with the actors. I cannot describe the pain. Eventually she selects a movie and fast-forwards through the previews. When she presses play a familiar, comically eerie theme song is playing. She chose Addams Family Values for fuck's sake. "Come here so I can strangle you." "You reminded me of it the other day," she says, and flops down in the easy chair. "I haven't seen this in forever." 12

"Alice." "Shush." "I'll sit through the Harry Potter movies with you if you just turn this shit off." "You used to like this movie." "Turn it off." She hums along with the theme song and snaps her fingers. "You don't really look like Uncle Fester," she observes. "Your head isn't round enough." I get off the couch and leave the den. It would be a much more impressive exit if I had the energy to do more than shuffle my feet across the rug. "Eddie?" "I'm shredding your Snape poster." "You wouldn't." She feels secure in the family's love for her as the baby and only daughter and maker of milkshakes. She doesn't think I'd seriously screw with her. "You should talk to your lab partner," she says. "Be assertive, and all that." That's the last time I confide in her about school and feelings and crap. I go into Mom's office and plug in the shredder. I grab a bunch of scrap paper out of the recycle box and start to feed it through. Alice shrieks at the sound and comes tearing out of the den in full-blown meltdown mode. Only Emmett thinks my joke is funny. I spend the late morning and early afternoon in my room. Mom banished Alice and I to opposite ends of the house. She's probably clutching her stupid poster, rocking back and forth wearing wizard robes for comfort. I share DNA with that. What she did was not cool, though. The Addams Family is one thing, and then she had to go and call me Eddie. I hate that name. And I hate that she had a point. Swan's snotty remarks wouldn't bother me so much if I just told her the fuck off. I've let a girl I can't stand get under my skin. I oughta drive over to her place right now and chew her out, just so she can stew in guilt all weekend. So do it, tough guy. Nah, I'm all right. Buk buk buk b-kok! I hate you. I am you. I put on real clothes and borrow the keys to Emmett's car. I know where Bella lives without having to look up her address. Her dad is a pretty visible presence in Forks, being police chief and all. He has a little white-sided place in town, near the edge of the woods. I think through what I'll say to her as I merge onto the highway. This isn't precisely anything I've had to deal with before. No one has ever said anything nasty about my disease right to my face. Mostly they just ostracize me and talk behind my back. I guess it's either guilt or fear that keeps them from teasing me outright ­ or knowing that Emmett would take issue with it. I know from personal experience just how memorable his ass-kickings are. When I turn onto her street, I start to think that this might be a bad idea. I pull into her driveway and turn off the car. It's a quiet neighborhood. The drapes on the front window are shut. I could probably drive away and she would never know I was ever here. You are such a chickenshit. I get out of the car and make my way to the front door to ring the bell. No one answers the door. I know she's home. That antique she drives is parked out front. I ring the bell a few more times without 13

an answer. Maybe she's around back. I look over the gate at the side of the house and find her reading on a blanket in the backyard. "Hey, Swan." She looks over and sits up when she sees it's me. "Cullen. What are you doing here?" "I want to talk to you." "The latch is on the right side." So I reach over the gate and let myself in. I walk over to her blanket and look down at her as she looks up at me expectantly. This isn't going to work. I didn't picture it going quite like this. She's being too welcoming. If she were bitchy about me showing up unannounced on a Saturday, it would be easy to tell her off. "What do you want to talk about?" she prompts me when the silence stretches too long. I shrug. "What are you reading?" "Have a seat." She pats the blanket beside her. I sit and she lies back down and opens her book. "Let me know when you're ready to tell me why you're really here." I almost get up and leave. This is downright embarrassing. But then I'd have to face her on Monday looking like an idiot, and I didn't drive all the way over here to give up and retreat like a loser. No more letting her under my skin. I look at the cover of her book. It's a compilation of Jane Austen novels. "You read Austen for fun, you dork?" "You didn't come over here to talk about my leisure reading." "For all you know." "Are you trying to be friendly, Cullen?" she says with amused shrewdness. "Of course not, it's you." She chuckles at that and flips the page. I just sit there and mentally kick myself. There is no good way to segue into what I came here to say to her. So, remember the other day when you compared me to Fester Addams? Yeah? Well, eat shit and die. I could just come right out any say it, but then I'd look like an asshole. I came her to make her feel like one, not be one myself. I lie back on the blanket and fold my hands behind my head. "Is this really what you do on weekends?" "Yes. And before you try any other small talk: yes, I really am from Phoenix; no, you may not borrow my car, homework, or help; no, I do not dance; yellow is my favorite color and the Stones feed it to the Beatles. Okay?" Her little rant makes me snort in a most undignified way. "You like the Stones?" "If you're a Beatles fan, get the fuck off my lawn." I chuckle while she deadpans. Bella goes back to reading her book and leaves me hanging. Fuck, I'm never going to get a chance to chew her out if she keeps making me laugh. She starts tapping her toe and humming the tune of "Stealing My Heart." Fuck, if this chick wasn't so annoying she might actually be cool. I shut my eyes and tap along with her. I wonder if she likes Santana... I'm awake before I realize I was ever asleep. The sun is below the fence now, and Bella is sitting cross-legged next to me with her book in her lap. I'm wrapped up in the blanket that she spread out for herself. That was nice of her. Fuck off; if she were nice you wouldn't be here. I sit up and push back the picnic blanket. My mouth is dry. "What time is it?" Bella closes her book. "Time to start dinner." She stands up and brushes her pants off. "Come inside. You can stall some more in there." She walks toward the back door without waiting to see if I'll follow. And I can't leave yet. 14

I gather up the blanket and follow her inside. The Swan kitchen is small and painted bright yellow in what seems to be a forced attempt at cheerfulness. I set the blanket on one of the dining chairs and take a seat in another. Bella is taking ingredients for baked chicken out of the fridge. "We don't have any Jell-O," she says. "What else do you eat?" "You don't have to feed me." I can't take her hospitality when I fully intend to bitch her out. That's just bad manners. "Cullen," she says with a tone and look that tells me her patience is thin, "what can you eat?" "Got any yogurt?" "No." She opens the fridge and studies the contents. "What about tomato soup?" Too much acid. "No, thanks." "Scrambled eggs?" Don't even mention eggs. "No. Thanks." She shuts the fridge "Are you going to make me keep guessing?" "I told you that you didn't have to feed me." She fiddles with one of the fridge magnets with intense concentration. "Do you have stomach cancer?" "I don't have cancer." "What stage?" "Did you hear me? I said I don't have cancer." Bella opens the fridge and takes out carrots, peas, a jar of honey and a carton of milk. She turns her back on me and starts peeling carrots over the sink. It bodes well for me that she's pissed off. This might be the opening I've been waiting for. I'm just about to say something when the phone rings. Bella answers and talks with the receiver tucked under her chin, still peeling carrots. It's her dad. That's all I can gather from her half of the conversation. She answers his questions with yeses and no's, with a quick 'love you' before hanging up. She drops the carrots into water to boil and starts shelling peas. "So listen." "So talk." "I am, if you'll just listen and not interrupt." "Hey, do your parents know you're here?" "Quit trying to change the subject." She puts another pot on to steam the peas and begins to set up the blender. The chicken needs basting. She knows her way around a kitchen, I'll give her that. Now would be a great time for some smartass remark about knowing her place as a woman. "So Mr. Banner called me aside the other day," she says with affected casualness. "He wanted to talk to me." "What about?" This bodes fucking ill for me. "He wanted to let me know that he's thinking of grading us separately on our term project because you're 'not as active a participant.'" She makes little air quotes on the last bit. "Whatever." It's only fair, even if it sucks. "I told him not to." "Why the hell not?" She sets a strainer in the sink for the vegetables. "I'm a team player," she answers sarcastically. She's not going tell me the real reason. She pities you, you fucktard. "So listen." "Listening." The vegetable water splashes in the sink. 15

"About why I came over..." She dumps the carrots and peas into the blender. "Yeah?" "It's about something you said in bio." "What's that?" She puts a big dollop of honey and a splash of milk into the blender jug with a dash of some spice I can't identify. "Look, it was totally not cool when you -" She starts the blender and cuts off the rest of my sentence. She looks over at me with Bambi-eyes and switches it off. "What?" "When you -" She does it again. "Did you say something?" "Stop being a twat, Swan." "Spit it out, Cullen." "I -" She fires up the blender again. "I swear to God, Swan..." She just smirks and turns the damn blender back on. She lets it run for more than five seconds this time and takes out a soup bowl. I wonder how hard she'd struggle if I tried to strangle her. Bella pours her orange concoction out into the soup bowl and sets it in front of me with a tall glass of milk and a spoon. "I'm not hungry." But it does smell good. The steam feels nice on my face. "Try it." I look down at the bowl of soup. It won't look any prettier coming back up. "I'd rather not." "You're eight inches taller than me and we weigh about the same." "You don't have cancer." "Apparently you don't either." Damn it, I should have just said she had a fat ass or something. But she doesn't. She has a nice ass, actually. She turns back to the kitchen and checks on the chicken in the oven. "Try one bite." So I do. I coat my spoon with a fine layer of soup and lick it. Fuck me, it's good. Nothing tastes good anymore. Except this. I take a full bite. It's still good. I forgot what hot food tastes like after all this yogurt and Jell-O. "It can't be throat cancer," Bella muses aloud. "Your voice is still smooth. Not lung cancer, either ­ you don't cough." I'm too busy enjoying the soup to tell her to fuck off and stop guessing. "You're in the right age bracket for testicular cancer..." "My balls are none of your business, Swan." There's the click of a key in the front door and a moment later Chief Swan steps in. He calls out his daughter's name and she replies that she's in the kitchen. "The chicken will be ready in five." He comes into the kitchen and I stand up to say hello. Chief Swan looks from me to his daughter with a totally readable expression: What is Cancer Boy doing in my kitchen? "You Dr. Cullen's boy?" "Yes, sir. It's a pleasure to meet you." I hold out my hand and he shakes it like I'm made of glass. He, like most other people, is uncomfortable looking at me for more than three seconds, and quickly turns away to get himself a glass of water. I sit back down and return to my soup. "Edward's my lab partner," Bella fills in the awkward blank. "Yeah? You kids working on homework?" I haven't turned in a piece of biology homework since 16

December. "Yeah, our term project," Bella says. It's not quite a lie, so she pulls it off convincingly. "I'll keep the TV down." "Can we work upstairs?" Chief Swan looks over at me under his lashes and clears his throat. I guess he has a rule about no boys on the second floor, or in the general vicinity of his daughter altogether. But Cancer Boy isn't a threat. Who would want to fool around with him? And surely he's too weak and pathetic to force himself on her. Stop talking about yourself in the third person, you twit. "Alright. Not too late, though." Bella's room isn't quite messy, but it isn't clean either. There are shoes and CDs scattered all over the floor and her desk is buried under paper. She leaves the door ajar for the sake of her father's blood pressure and invites me to sit wherever. "If you feel nauseous, the bathroom is the next door down the hall." "I'm all right." The soup is sitting comfortably, even after two helpings. I feel full for the first time in awhile, and it's not painful like it used to be. Chief Swan even remarked on my appetite over dinner. It didn't occur to me until he said something that I was eating at an embarrassing speed. I even had seconds. "Where'd you learn to make that stuff?" "I had the recipe lying around." Bella takes a seat at her desk chair and puts her feet up on the footboard, crossed at the ankle. Her socks don't match. "Could I get the recipe?" "If you want." She takes a pad of paper out of her desk drawer and locates a stray pen amid the mess. She writes it all down for me quickly and tears the page out. "So why'd you come here?" She folds the paper carefully, taking her time. Aw, shit, she's ransoming the damn thing. "I wanted to talk to you." "So you said." "You kept distracting me." "Talk now." "It's about something you said in biology." "Just say it, Cullen." I take a deep breath. "Suffice it to say, I like ripping on you. And I'm pretty sure you like ripping on me. We wouldn't have anything to say to each other if we didn't." "I might be losing interest in this." "There's shit that's off limits, Swan." She makes a prompting hand motion to show that she's listening. "We can only rip on each other for stuff we can control, all right?" "Is this about the lime Jell-O?" "No, it's about you calling me Uncle fucking Fester." She smiles and I ask her what's so fucking funny. "You spent four hours here trying to work up the nerve to tell me not to razz you for being bald? Jeez, save yourself the effort and just text message me next time." "We're agreed, though? No more insults about shit we can't control?" "Agreed." She hands over the paper with the soup recipe. "But for the record, you're a coward."

17

Sunday

I have no energy and my joints ache, but for the first time in a long time, I'm excited to get out of bed. I'm eager to get down to the kitchen and eat ­ when was the last time that happened? I go through the pockets of yesterday's jeans for the recipe. Soup can be a breakfast food, right? Mom is the only one in the kitchen when I get downstairs. Dad is still at the hospital and my siblings aren't awake yet. Mom has the Sunday paper spread out in front of her and a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. "Morning, love," she says. "Morning." My cheerful tone throws her and she looks up to see me taking carrots and frozen peas out of the fridge. "Do we have any honey?" "You're hungry?" She says it like the notion is absurd to the fifth degree. "I found a recipe that doesn't make me sick." Mom leaves her paper and comes to look over the recipe. She quietly assembles the rest of the ingredients while I start to wash and peel carrots. "What's this?" Mom points to the last ingredient on Bella's list. It's simply The Secret Ingredient. Damn it. I take the page from Mom and get the phone book out of the desk. I find Charles Swan's listing and dial. It doesn't occur to me until the phone rings that Chief Swan might not take kindly to being woken up early on a Sunday. Bella answers the phone with a tired mumble that passes for 'hello.' "What's the secret ingredient, Swan?" "Who is this?" She clears her throat of sleep. "It's Edward. What's the secret ingredient?" "Any excuse to call me, eh Cullen?" "Don't be difficult. Just tell me so I can eat." "Meditate. It'll come to you." "You enjoy screwing with me, don't you?" "Nah, you're too boney. Screwing with you might cause a fire." I curl my hands into fists and count to ten very slowly. "Please, Swan." "It's fresh ginger. Or dried, if you don't have fresh." "Honestly?" "Would I screw with you?" Evidently not. "Why didn't you just write that?" "I take pleasure in frustrating you." "You're sick." "We match." I hang up on her. Another second of that and I'd be tempted to commit a very messy homicide. It's not like I want to screw her either. Is that so?

Monday

I wonder what Mike Newton sees in Bella. She's such a bitch. And yet there he is, flirting with her again and again no matter how many times she shuts him down. I guess she's polite about it, but still. I wonder what she doesn't see in him. He's good looking, I guess, and popular in a generic sort of way. Fuck me if I understand why. I don't think he's funny and he's not all that bright or good at sports. 18

I guess he's the mediocre everyman. And apparently Bella doesn't like that. She's too smart for him anyway. He couldn't handle her. Getting involved with Bella is like playing with fire. The thought reminds me of that Stones song and I smile. Biology is shit-simple today. I don't even have to talk to Bella. Mr. Banner puts on a movie for us. It's a documentary about Mendel. The lights go off, my head goes down, and I doze. The scraping of chairs across the floor wakes me up at the end of class, and I trudge off to English. Alice catches up to me outside the arts building after the final bell. She puts on her sweet voice and tries to borrow money from me. "What did you blow yours on?" "Nothing. I'm trying to put together enough to buy an outfit for the spring dance." "So ask Mom." "I did. She suggested that I just alter the dress I wore to winter formal." "Sounds like a good idea." She rolls her eyes at me with a long-suffering sigh. "You're such a guy." We've got a bit of a wait for Emmett, so Alice and I chill in the car. The parking lot begins to empty around us. This is a great vantage point to people-watch, but the most interesting specimen is sitting in the seat directly in front of me. A group of seniors walk by and Alice literally leans forward, craning her neck to keep them in view until they're gone. Could she be a little more obvious? "Do seniors ever think about dating sophomores, do you think?" she says. I reach over the front seat and pat her spiky head. "Alice, you're what is commonly referred to as 'jail bait.'"

Tuesday

I balance my notebook on my knee and try to find something non-boring in this textbook. Bella did all the work of watching yesterday's movie and writing our report on the subject, so it's my turn to contribute and prepare our proposal for phase two of the term project. Mr. Banner wants us to design an experiment like Mendel's pea one, but using different, more advanced plant life. "No, you may not reproduce yourselves," he told the class. The cretins in the room laughed. Bella was one of them. Suck up. The nurse makes her round of the dialysis patients, checking connections and equipment. I've got another hour here before I can go home. I want to finish this proposal in that time so I never have to look at it again. I hear the squeaky wheels of the book cart coming down the hall beyond the curtain that divides me from the patient in the next recliner. The hospital has volunteers walk up and down the place, offering magazines, reading material and chewing gum to patients. The volunteers are always either old people (visiting their friends, maybe? Or staking out a bed for when they end up here?) or students trying to earn enough volunteer hours to merit a scholarship. The squeaky cart stops in front of me. "Cullen." I look up. It's Bella, wearing a green volunteer vest. "What the hell are you doing here?" Must I see her smirking face everywhere? Must she see me hooked up to a machine like some sort of invalid? She taps the volunteer tag on her vest in answer. "Care for something to read?" she says, and looks at the textbook on my knee. "How's it coming?" "Boring as hell." "Just pick an easy plant that we can crossbreed and be done with it." 19

"Is part of your job to harass patients?" "It's just one more service I offer." She starts to push the book cart away to the next cubicle. "Later, Cullen."

Wednesday

I am awesome. Mr. Banner approved my proposal and told five other groups to refine theirs. Okay, so it's our proposal, but it's my genius. "Why'd you pick snapdragons?" "My mom grows them. The first generation is in her planters. The project is half-done already." "I underestimated your laziness." "It's pronounced intelligence, Swan."

Thursday

"You should think about coming," Alice says. I slouch down lower in the chair outside the fitting rooms and ponder insanity. Mom roped me into this shopping trip. She said she's tired of seeing me walk around in clothes three sizes too big. I told her that I don't want to waste money on clothes that will only fit for a little while ­ just until I gain the weight back. But she managed to bully me into buying one shirt and one pair of pants, which is how I ended up in the chair outside the fitting rooms, waiting for Alice to choose a dress for the fucking spring dance. "Not going," I reply. "You don't have enough fun." She opens the change room door. "That dress is way too short." Mom comes back from browsing the racks just in time to undermine my opinion. "Ooh, sweetie, turn around. That looks great on you." Fuck me, I don't want to see my little sister's legs. No one else should want to either. As far as I'm concerned it'd be better if she went to this dance in a nun's habit. "Can we go yet?" "Just be patient." "If I vomit, can we go?"

20

4. Feb 7 to 14

Friday

Jessica asked Mike to the spring dance. Hallelujah. Now I have an excuse not to see him before or after 'visiting my grandma.' Am I a bad person? Then he has to ambush me by my locker at the end of lunch. "So, Jessica asked me to the dance." "That's great, Mike." "Yeah, well..." "Well what?" "I told her I would think about it." "Why would you do a thing like that?" You jackass. Jessica is probably hyperventilating in a stairwell right now. "I was hoping...well, I was hoping you'd change your mind about going." "Yeeeah, Grandma's birthday is sort of a non-negotiable date." "I get that. It's just...maybe I'll see you at an after-party? A bunch of us were going to drive down to First Beach after the dance closes and have a bonfire." "I'll think about it." A long as it's a group activity and not a date ­ and it's at First Beach, so maybe I can get Jake to come along as a friend-date to supplant any of Mike's ambitions. "Still, you should give Jess an answer one way or another. It's rude to leave her hanging like that." I wasn't into Mike to begin with, but shit like this just hurts his non-existent chances. If he's willing to blow Jess off and be rude to her instead of doing the gentlemanly thing and giving her a polite answer, he's probably willing to do the same to me at some point. Thank heavens for Grandma's birthday. Edward is already at the lab table when I slide into my seat. He's staring out the window again, too absorbed in the view of the parking lot for a hello. "You look different." "Do I?" He doesn't care what I think, but fuck him. "Yeah, your clothes fit." I can actually see where his shoulders are and his pants fit all the way down his leg, not just at the waist where his belt cinches. I can even see the line between his ribs and hipbone. He's so thin, but it's sort of neat to see the real shape of him. Even emaciated and pale, he's still sort of beautiful. Without thinking I touch the line between ribs and hip. He looks down at my hand and then gives me the strangest look. Don't touch me. What are you doing? Why are you touching me? You're touching me! Fuck off, Swan. You haven't let go yet. Don't push your limits or I'll push mine. Please push your limits. I let go and turn to my book. Jeez, that guy's got penetrating eyes. I can still feel him staring at me with that weird look that makes me feel like I'm five years old. "Books away! Pop quiz!" 21

Thank Fuck ­ I won't have to talk to Edward. This day becomes even more of an obstacle course as I try to leave school. There's a bottleneck in the parking lot and not one, but two people decide to take this opportunity to ask me to the dance. If I weren't stuck in traffic I'd run them over. It's not that I dislike Tyler or Eric, I just hate dancing and the presumption that everyone wants to go to this stupid dance.

Saturday

Dress shopping. How the hell did I end up here? Oh yeah, Jess and Angela proposed a trip to the bookstore, knowing I would fall for it. I don't know or care what the hell looks good on you - stop asking me. "That looks great, Ange." I leave the fitting room area and the Shopper Twins to browse the cottons section. There's a sale on cotton undershirts, and I know Charlie could use some. I've washed half a dozen holey ones since coming to live here. I'm going through packs of Fruit of the Loom looking for Charlie's size when an annoyingly familiar voice appears at my shoulder. "Boxers or briefs?" God, even for Newton that's a lame pickup line. "I don't think much about what my dad keeps his balls in." I grab a pack of medium undershirts from the back of the rack. Newton is still smiling. He has a dress shirt in his hand. I guess he's shopping for a dance outfit too. "You're here alone? I thought girls always shopped in groups." "Jessica and Angela are trying on dresses." I gesture vaguely in the direction of ladies formalwear. "What about you? Still thinking about coming after you visit with family?" "I'll come to the after party at the beach." "Sweet." Man, I hate that grin. There's something so fake and mediocre about Newton that I can't help but dislike him, even when he's being friendly. Then I feel guilty because I know he doesn't deserve to be disliked. He pats my shoulder - I hate handsie people - and tells me he'll see me at school. Unfortunately.

Sunday

I get up with the urge to undertake spring cleaning. I start with my room and when that's done I break for breakfast. Next on the agenda are the kitchen cupboards. I'm sure there are cans of soup in there that predate my birth. Charlie notices my activity and takes a crack at the garage. When I go out there with sandwiches for lunch I can tell exactly where he got bored and quit to wash his car instead. It makes me miss Renee a little bit. She could never stay on task either. I take my lunch break in front of my computer and write an email to my mommy between bites. I tell Mom about school and my new friends, and about Jake and Billy and the pseudo-family we four form when we gather. I tell her about my lab partner and his illness, and about the term project and gardening. Her reply email consists of one sentence: This lab partner ­ is he cute?

22

Monday

I have to hide behind my textbook again today at lunch. The group of dancegoers is talking about pooling the cost of a limo or, failing that, carpooling to the dance and then to First Beach. I scribble a memo-to-self on the back of my hand: Call Jake ­ Sat. First Beach 11pm. I don't think to hide it and Mike sees the note. Aw, shit. With his supernatural annoying powers, Edward grabs my wrist the second I sit down in bio and reads the memo on the back of my hand. "Jake? You got a boyfriend, Swan, or is that just to crush Newton's ego?" I yank my wrist out of his grip. "None of your business, Cullen." He chuckles at me. "He's not going to give up easily, you know. If he thinks you've got a boyfriend he'll only see it as a challenge and try harder." "I didn't realize you were such an expert on the psychology of Mike Newton." "He's boring and predictable, Swan. That's why you don't like him, isn't it?" I'm spared the trouble of answering by Mr. Banner, who tells us to come to the front to collect the microscopes, slides and lab forms. We're measuring the plants again today and taking slips of stem for examination. Edward takes the microscope and I begin to take stem samples with my porn star hands. "You didn't answer my question," he says quietly as he adjusts the tray. "Because it's a stupid question." He turns to me with a strange look. His eyes seem more expressive for the fact that they don't have lashes. "Don't give me that look." "What look?" "You know the one." "Obviously not, or I wouldn't have asked." "Just label the damn slides, Cullen."

Tuesday

There's still a faint outline of my note-to-self on my hand after my morning shower. Should I leave it? Should I bug Newton and give him another opportunity to ask uncomfortable questions? Should I give Edward another opportunity to razz me? So I scrub my hand raw. It doesn't help much, because at lunch Jessica asks me if I'll be bringing anyone to the beach after the dance. I guess word gets around ­ maybe Mike said something to her. "Yep. His name's Jake." Jessica giggles. "Are you guys a thing?" Whatever the fuck that means. I just roll my eyes playfully and say, "Come on, Jess, you're not gonna embarrass me, are you?" She squeals with delight, but promises to be cool. She says she can't wait to meet him. A few tables over, I see Edward arguing quietly with the little ice skater. Maybe he'll be too pissed off about that to harass me in biology today. "Hey, Jess?" "Mmmh?" "Who's the girl with the short black hair, talking to Cullen?" Jessica leans over to see who I'm talking about. "Oh, that's just Alice. She's one of the social planners. That's her brother she's talking to." The way Jessica's voice pitches down at the end adds the unspoken the guy with cancer. 23

The best defense is a good offense. From the moment I enter the biology lab I can see Cullen's smirking mouth gearing up for a taunt ­ trying to make himself feel better after that spat with Alice, perhaps? I slide into my seat and ask him cheerfully, "So are you and your sister close?" Whatever he was about to say crawls back into his mouth to die and he turns away with a sullen look. He doesn't speak to me for the rest of the class, even when I ask him direct questions. He just grunts at me in place of 'yes' and 'no.' Now I wonder what he was going to say; it might have given me a clue as to what's eating him.

Wednesday

Billy comes down to visit Charlie before dinner, and Jake tags along. It's at this point that I realize I don't have enough food left in the fridge to feed four, so a quick trip to the grocery store is in order. Jake offers to come with me, and we leave our dads ­ age forty, going on ten ­ to watch the sportscast. Once we're alone in the car Jake informs me that he told a few people about the party at First Beach this Saturday. "Just two," he says when he sees I'm worried about this party getting out of hand. "Good friends of mine ­ Quil and Embry. All I had to do was mention girls." That makes me laugh. "Only a few of them are single, you know." Jake smiles impishly. "I'll spread the word." We don't talk about Saturday again until he ambushes me with the subject in the condiments aisle. "So I was wondering, are we supposed to be going together or as friends?" "As friends. You're free to chase the single girls with Quil and Embry." "Aren't you a single girl?" "Yeeeah..." Jake smiles like this isn't at all uncomfortable. "Don't worry, I'll protect you from any guy who gets the wrong idea about you." "Thanks. He's blond and annoying and his voice goes high when he's angry." Jake snorts. "You're a magnet for trouble, aren't you?" "Patent pending."

Thursday

It's a quiet day in biology. Edward is absent. I enjoy the peace and quiet, but it's actually sort of dull when he isn't around to annoy the crap out of me. As I walk to the gym for my last class of the day, I pass through the English department and notice Edward sitting in one of the classrooms. He has his head down on the desk, pillowed on skinny arms, and looks distinctly green. I bet he spent last period in the nurse's office. Why he didn't stay there is a mystery, because he looks like hell. I walk away to gym class, and Mike catches me up in the hall ­ all thought of my lab partner drifts away in conversation with Mike: apparently we're starting basketball today. I should probably wear a helmet. The remainder of my school day is spent with three thoughts cycling through my brain: How much more of this? Don't fall. Don't maim anybody. On my way out to the parking lot, sweaty and tired, I see Cullen walking with his little sister. She has a hand on his back like she's offering support and they're moving pretty slowly. 24

It shouldn't, but it makes me feel better that someone had a much worse day than I did.

Friday

It's St. Valentine's day. A lot of people are wearing pink or red and the cafeteria food is themed today. Spaghetti and garlic bread, red Jell-O or chocolate cake for dessert, and fish sticks dyed with red food coloring. The latter turn everybody's lips scarlet and Jess tries unsuccessfully to cover hers with lip gloss. When I get to biology Mr. Banner has a pot of mini-roses on the front lab table. I wonder what we're doing with that today. Edward tells me happy Valentine's Day as I take my seat. That's the first friendly thing he's said all week. "Nice hat." It's red, of course. I didn't figure him as the type to dress according to holiday, especially a mushy holiday. We're doing punnet squares for five different species of roses today. Apparently it's practice for when we have to do this as part of our second-phase term project. Mr. Banner wants to catch anyone who doesn't know what they're doing early. It's silent work, but this is simple ­ it's just charts and quarter-percentiles ­ and it doesn't take long for note passing to start. Who's your imaginary boyfriend today? Cullen writes on the torn corner of his page. I can see him smirking out of the corner of my eye. You're in a good mood today. He hesitates before writing: Who would be unhappy on a holiday that involves excessive amounts of sugar consumption? Because junk food is what you need. Don't you ever get tired of puking? He frowns at that. It's mildly enjoyable to know I can get under his skin as thoroughly as he can get under mine. All the time, he writes. You're in remission? Yeah. How long? I see him tap his fingertips on the lab table one after the other. He's counting. Thirty-nine days. Shit. That's barely longer than I've been in Forks.

25

5. Feb 14 to 22

Friday

Basketball season is almost over, but the boys' and girls' varsity teams are holding an exhibition game in the gym as part of a fundraiser. I'm not sure what it's for ­ I didn't read the posters ­ but Alice mentioned something of the sort when talking about the spring dance. I guess the proceeds from that are going to whichever disease or third world country they've chosen to take pity on. During lunch period the basketball teams put on their uniforms and set up a ticket/donations table in the lunchroom. I get to the cafeteria just in time to see Alice being canvassed by one of the seniors she was openly ogling the other day. Please, Alice, don't embarrass yourself and then force me to associate with you. I head over to the fundraiser table to save her from herself. I don't know the guy she's talking to, but he's really tall, which makes her seem even shorter and me feel more protective of her. I watch them exchange money for game tickets and kick myself. If she doesn't embarrass herself here, she will at that fucking game. "Hang onto the stubs, 'cause the girls' team is holding a draw for door prizes. Doors open at six, game starts at seven." Alice nods along with wide-eyed wonder like he's telling her the secrets of the universe. He politely pretends not to notice her stare. "Yeah, so, we're selling tickets at the door, too, so bring your family, friends...girlfriend?" Alice's intense smile disappears. Shit. And fuck him. I push past Mike shit-for-brains Newton and try to grab her arm, but she darts away before I can. The basketball player looks a little horrified, watching her run away in tears. "Dude," is all I can say to him. I jog after Alice. She has a good head start, and I hope she hasn't gone into the girls' bathroom or some other place where I can't get to her. Her ego is going to be bruised for weeks. And that asshole had to blurt out his incorrect assumptions in front of a group of people ­ I can already hear what uncreative taunts they'll have for her by Monday morning. And it's not like her hair will grow to girly length by then. I'm sure that's why he thought she was a lesbian. Why else would a girl have such short hair, right? I feel even worse for her because it's my fault her hair is short to begin with. She collected sponsorships to shave her head last fall and donated the money to cancer research projects. Girly little Alice wouldn't have done anything like that unless someone close to her had cancer ­ me. I find her curled up on the backseat of Emmett's car, holding her knees and crying. She's locked all the doors. "Open up." I tap on the window and she gives me the finger. "Come on, open up. We'll go get food somewhere ­ I'll take you for ice cream or something." That's the universal comfort food for girls, right? "Go away!" She only opens the door when I suggest that we cut classes for the rest of the day and go home early. When Mom and Dad come home they find us on the couch in the den, watching Harry Potter. They take one look at Alice ­ full Hogwarts uniform, round glasses, wand in hand ­ and say, "Bad day, sweetie?"

26

Saturday

I wake up to find Alice in my room, standing in front of my closet mirror with one of my hats on. "What are you doing?" She tugs the toque off and her hair sticks up in all directions. We both inherited that unfortunate genetic trait. "Do you think it would look good if I dyed my hair blonde?" "No. You'd get called a blonde ditz all the time and your Harry Pothead costume would look even dumber." "Only if I kept wearing Gryffindor colors." I don't want to know what that means. She twists a short lock of her hair around her finger, frowning. "Maybe I'll dye it reddish, like yours." "What the hell do you mean, like mine?" She huffs. "You're so sensitive!" "Put my hat back where it belongs." I roll over and drop the pillow over my head to broadcast 'go away.' It doesn't work, though. A few seconds later I feel the mattress dip as she climbs on. "Forget dyeing it," she says. "Maybe I should go with extensions." "Alice, you seem to be laboring under the delusion that I am your sister. If you want to talk about girly shit like your hair, go to Mom." "But Edwaaard," she whines, and flops down on the pillows next to me. "Mom's busy. And you're smart." I hold the pillow tighter over my face to muffle my groan. "Don't get extensions. Your hair's too short; it'll look like shit." I shouldn't have encouraged her. She snuggles up to me and asks more of my opinion. "Maybe I'll just dye the front part? I could do something edgy like blue." "Or you could act your age and get a boyfriend." She makes injured puppy sounds at that. Damn it. Alice has mastered the art of being the spoiled youngest child. She can play us all like violins. "Sorry." "But while we're on the subject, you could use a girlfriend." I yawn. "Yeah, right. Know anyone interested in emaciated bald guys?" "Your personality is the bigger turn-off," she says, and pats my head. Fucker. I get up and go to take a shower as an excuse to get Alice to leave me alone. A big fat day of nothing stretches in front of me. The spring dance is tonight, but fuck if I'm going. It'll be a quiet evening without Alice, for once. By the time I get out of the shower I can hear Harry Potter playing downstairs, and decide I need to get out of here. I get dressed and ask to borrow Mom's car. "Where are you going?" "Visiting some friends." I can see what friends? written on her face before Emmett tactfully blurts it out. "School friends." "Did you grow this friend in a petri dish in bio?" I take off my shoe and throw it at him. "Emmett, that's enough." "He threw a shoe at me!" Mom gives me a disapproving look, but she's been a lot more prone to letting my shenanigans slide since I got sick. I get off with just an apology to Emmett ­ or maybe he'll make me pay more dearly 27

later. Mom just sighs and tells me to have the car back by seven. It's loaned to me on the condition that I drive Alice and her friends to the dance. At first I just drive around Forks with no destination in mind. I stop at the grocery store for a cup of yogurt, and then carry on driving around aimlessly. I end up sitting in the school parking lot, eating strawberry yogurt and watching the streamers for tonight's dance flap in the wind. I really need to work on making some friends. I had a good group of friends back in Seattle, before we moved. I haven't heard from Tanya in awhile. Her emails have been sparse since Christmas. I guess I've fallen a few places on her priority list now that she's got a boyfriend. Whatever the fuck his name is. A girlfriend might be a good idea too. Not that Alice was right, or anything. It's just a thought. Really, asshole? And how much would you pay her to pretend to be attracted to you? Maybe I'll get lucky and find a blind asexual girl to go out with. Or maybe a chick with dementia that can't compare me to other guys and realize I'm rather inadequate. When I get sick of my own thoughts I turn on the radio to fill the gap. "Dandelion" by the Stones is playing, and I'm reminded of Bella. Maybe I'll come by unannounced to bother her again. I could make it a Saturday tradition, since I have nothing else to do with my weekends. When I get to the Swan house, Bella is washing her truck in the driveway. She asks me what the hell I'm doing there and I ask her if she wants help washing. She hands me a sponge. "You're not washing it so you can drive to the dance in it, are you?" "I told you last Saturday, I don't dance." "So what are you doing tonight?" "Your mom." I didn't know anyone over the age of ten still made 'your mom' jokes. "No, really." "Hanging out. Going down to First Beach tonight." "What's at First Beach?" "A small after party with people from school, and some of my friends from the res." "So you don't dance, but you'll go to the beach in February?" "You visit a lab partner you can't stand on a Saturday. You don't have anything better to do, do you?" I toss my sponge back in the bucket and turn to leave. "Cullen." "Fuck off, Swan." "Do you want to come to First Beach tonight?" I half-turn to look at her incredulously. That was one hell of a mood swing. One minute she's insulting me, the next she's inviting me out with her friends. "What time?" Shut up, I'm lonely. "Eleven." "I'll meet you here and follow you." "Dress warm." When Mom hears that I made plans tonight, she offers to drive me. I think she just wants to spy and see if I imagined the whole thing or if I'm telling the truth. Three of Alice's friends are over. I can hear them giggling and chattering in her room as they get ready for the dance. Maybe it's not too late to convince Alice to wear a more modest dress. Or a tarp. And a chastity belt. And blinders so she can't ogle the seniors. She comes downstairs with glitter in her spiked hair ­ seriously, fucking glitter ­ and asks Mom to 28

borrow some lipstick. "What do you need lipstick for? It's just a school dance." Both Mom and Alice roll their eyes at me and neglect to answer my question. Fuck me. I remember making mud pies with Alice and pulling her pigtails. Now she's getting all slutted up to go to a dance, and I'm chauffeuring her there. I should have bought a ticket so I could chaperone her too. "She's really growing up, isn't she?" Dad says when he sees the look on my face. "Yeah. Is there a drug that can stop that?" He laughs at me. "I know, it's hard. But she's lucky she's got two older brothers to look out for her." Not that she makes it easy. "How come you're not going to the dance?" "Because it's dumb." "You might try to have a little more fun, Edward," he tells me. "You're so serious. You'll get old before your time." My testicles are cowering in fear. I'm trapped in a car with four giggling teenage girls. They put on a Britney Spears CD and are singing along. I'm emasculated just by being in proximity to them. After twenty minutes I can't take it anymore and switch off the music. "Hey!" "No more of that Britney Spears shit." One of Alice's friends passes her another CD in the passenger seat. It's Miley Cyrus. Fuck me. Hard. Sideways. Until I black out and have no memory of this torture. I sit in the car throughout the dance, listening to music and watching the doors. I don't want Alice to get the idea that she can leave with anybody else, and if I went home I'd just have to come back to the school to pick her up anyway. I chill in the dark and watch the couples making out in cars ­ is it really so difficult to drive out to one of the secluded logging roads first? Alice stays until the last possible second and then limps out to the car, sweaty and smiling. "What's wrong with your feet?" "Dancing in heels." She kicks the shoes off and rubs her sore toes. I drop her off at home and then head back into town to go to Bella's house. By the time I get there she's already in her truck, waiting for me. We exchange waves from our cars and then I follow her onto the southbound highway. It's about a twenty-minute drive to the beach at La Push. Bella goes through the res neighborhoods first, and stops to pick up three teenage boys at a little red house nestled against the woods. I wonder if one of them is Jake. It's eleven-thirty by the time we get to First Beach. A group of people is already there, constructing a bonfire halfway down the beach. I park near Bella. She gets out and takes a covered basket out of her truck bed. One of her Quileute friends offers to carry it for her. "Wait up." Bella explains me to her friends as I make my way over. "Oh, right, Dr. Cullen's kid," the stocky one says. She introduces them to me ­ so this is the mysterious Jake; he does exist ­ and we head down the beach. A few of the kids Bella sits with at lunch are already here. I recognize Jessica Stanley, Angela Whatever, and Mike shit-for-brains Newton. The rest I know by face, but not by name. A boy with bad skin whose name escapes me has brought a guitar. A few people were smart enough to bring hot dogs, marshmallows, and coat hangers for roasting. Bella, in typical weirdo fashion, has brought healthy food. She's got fruit, veggie sticks and hot cocoa in her basket. Then she pulls out a second thermos and hands it to me with a spoon. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued. Last time she cooked something for me I didn't eat anything 29

else for three days. I open the thermos and steam rises up to meet me. This stuff smells good. It isn't the carrot and pea soup. This is something different, but I do detect a hint of ginger in the aroma. "What's in it?" "Nothing you can't eat." Good Lord, it's good. It's some sort of puree of broccoli and honey and a dozen other things I can't identify. I thank her between bites and she responds by slipping a folded piece of paper into my jacket pocket. I bet that's the recipe. It's kind of cool being out here, even though I don't know half the people. It's like being part of a group of friends again. Most of them don't look at me, as usual, because my appearance makes them uncomfortable. The only people who look at me and talk to me are Bella and her Quileute friends, who don't seem to find anything out of the ordinary with my appearance. For the first time in a long time, I'm having fun. Bella's friends point out a spot on the cliffs overlooking the rocky beach as the place where the La Push kids like to go cliff diving. The information makes Bella smile and she declares that she's going to do that one day this summer. "Since when are you an adrenaline junkie?" She smiles at me. "Care to join me, Cullen?" I tell her I'm done cheating death. "And are you done living altogether, then?" It's two-o-clock in the morning by the time I get home. I walk in the front door to find Mom and Alice on the couch with hot chocolate, waiting up for me. "You have a curfew, you know, young man," Mom says. "Sorry Mom." I lean over to give her a goodnight kiss and she less-than-subtly smells my jacket. I reek of smoke from the bonfire and the salty Pacific. "You really were at the beach," she says with surprise. Always good to know she has faith in me. "Did you make friends?" "Good night, Mom." "What are their names?" "Good night, Mom." "Edward!"

Sunday

Sunday is sleep-in day at the Cullen house. Everyone except Mom (chronic insomniac that she is) lies in till ten or later. By the time I wake up the sun is shining across my bed and it's blissfully warm. I just lay there for a few moments, listening to the sounds of a sleeping house, before I bother to take stock of my body. When I do get around to it, I notice I'm hungry ­ that's been happening more and more this past week. My hand, as usual, has made its way into my pants of its own accord while I slept. The difference is, I wake up hard today. Last time that happened, there was snow on the ground. I smile and start to move my hand. This has got to be my favorite sign of recovery. I missed this, is my first thought, right before I notice that it doesn't feel the same as it used to. I keep moving my hand, varying strokes and pressure, but there's no build. The sensation never gets more intense. The urge to come never arrives, and after five minutes of pumping fruitlessly my erection starts to wilt in my hand. "Come on, you bastard." 30

Mom knocks on the door and the jig is up. Fuck. So much for starting the day on a high note. "Sweetie? Do you want breakfast?" At least I've got a new soup recipe from Bella. That's sort of a positive start to the day. I still would have preferred an orgasm.

Monday

I think about sitting with Bella's crowd at lunch, even though it involves Mike fucking Newton. But I need to work on the whole friends thing, and everyone was pretty cool on Saturday. They weren't outright repulsed by me, anyway. And maybe with time they'll get used to the elephant that follows me into every room, and I can be part of a social group again. You know, I think I saw a flying pig out back. Oh fuck off, you. You mean me? I'm not having this argument with myself. I follow behind Bella and her friends, keeping a bit of distance. Maybe I'll just go up to them once they've found a table and ask if this seat is taken. Or maybe that will make them feel guilty and obliged to tolerate my presence. Should I just sit down and let them make what they will of it? As I'm debating this they find a table. I look around for a seat to occupy, but their table is full. So much for that. I turn and make my way toward Alice's table, trying to make it look like I'm not retreating. When I sit down Alice gives me a strange look. She thought I would sit with other people today too. I just shake my head and turn to my Jell-O cup, and she - mercifully - lets it slide. You're a stupid fuck, Cullen. Why'd I want to be friends with her anyway? She's a bitch. She's sorta hot. That's enough out of you. Like it matters, limp-dick. Fuck off. She only invited you along to screw with your head. She's not totally incapable of being nice. Look! The pig flew by again! Bella spares me from my mental dialogue by pulling her chair back from the lab table loudly. She sits down with a nod hello and opens her books. "Why'd you invite me to First Beach with your friends?" Now would also be a good time to blurt out that you're failing four of six classes and can't get it up, dipshit. Go on, share with the class. Bella looks at me calmly. "I'd rather hear your theories." Shit. Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck her. Aw, hell. "You like this snippy banter, don't you? On some level you enjoy hanging out with me because you get to be wittier than you can be with any of the other cretins in this place." She smirks. "I felt sorry for you. Dude, you showed up at my house two Saturdays in a row with nothing better to do than help me wash my car. Come on." 31

I could have guessed that. But I didn't want to. "That's some bit of brutal honesty." "True friends stab you in the front," she says. She's a Wilde fan, then. "We're not friends." "If you say so." "I take it back." She laughs. "You're pathetic." "I'm an asshole." Honesty, right? "That too." "You're not friends with pathetic assholes?" "I'd be willing to make an exception, as long as you have a good reason why we should be friends." I bite the inside of my cheek as I turn that over in my head. Brutal honesty might actually work here. "Because I'm lonely." Bella smiles just slightly. Then she shakes her head. "Not good enough." "Books open to page 245, class," Mr. Banner announces over the chatter. "I've got an in-class assignment for you today. All the info you need to answer the questions is on that page." Assignment papers begin to circulate from the front of the room. I turn to Bella. "Please." She drops her voice to a murmur. "It's better if we're not friends." Well, that's a convenient way of phrasing rejection. "Why not?" Go on; tell me off to my face. "Because I would kill you." Now that I didn't expect. That conversation distracts me for the rest of the day. I barely absorb a word of my English lecture. I wonder what she meant when she said she'd kill me. She can't have been speaking literally. But the potential headline makes me chuckle: Police Chief's Daughter a Homicidal Maniac. It bothers me so much that I can't let her leave school without confronting her. I follow her to her truck after school and tap on the driver's side glass. She rolls down the stiff window. "What do you want, Cullen?" "It doesn't matter. I'm living like I'm already dead." She smirks as I throw her own words back at her. "Why me? Out of every other person at school, why do you want me to be your friend?" She gestures to the throngs of students milling around the parking lot. "Because you're not scared to look at me." "Get in." The Swan kitchen still seems forcefully sunny. Bella whips up a soup made of asparagus and chickpeas that tastes fucking fantastic. "Where'd you learn to cook like this?" "My grandma." "The one whose birthday was on Saturday?" She smiles. "Yeah. She ate a lot of soup before she died." Well now I feel like an asshole for bringing it up. "I'm sorry." Bella shrugs. 32

"When did she die?" 'Two years ago. Lung cancer." She gets up and opens the cupboard next to the fridge. There are a few cookbooks in there, but she pulls out a binder and sets it on the table. The cover has her name on it. Bella flips open the binder and searches through its scrapbook pages. It's full of pages torn out of other cookbooks and recipe clippings from magazines and newspapers. She stops on a recipe I recognize ­ the carrot and pea soup ­ and points to the title on the page header. She tore that page out of Living with Cancer: Diet and Nutrition. She's been serving me Grandma's cancer food. That's so genuinely kind and accommodating I don't know what to say without sounding stupid. "Were you guys close?" "We got closer after her diagnosis." "Smoker?" "All her adult life." Bella gets up for another serving of soup. I wonder what it tastes like to someone with a strong stomach and functional taste buds. "So are you ever going to tell me what kind of cancer you had?" "Some other time." And for once, she leaves it without prodding.

Tuesday

We have a work period for the term project in biology. But nerdy Bella has ensured that we're ahead of the game, so there's not much work for us to do. So we play x's and o's on her notebook cover. "Are you an only child?" "Oh fuck off," she says as I win another match. "Yeah, I'm an only child." "Must be lonely." "It's peaceful." "You know my sister?" "The skinny girl with the spiky black hair?" "Yeah, Alice. You don't know what peaceful is until you've had to live with a shit-disturber like her." Bella chuckles. I win another round and she swears under her breath. "So did she cut her hair short like that, or did she have cancer too?" "No, she shaved her head to raise funds for cancer research." "What kind of research?" "Research for a cure. Duh." "No, what kind of cancer?" "Swan," I scold her. She wins her first match. The score is still ten to one in my favor. "Do you have any hair at all under that hat?" "Inappropriate question." "Did you shave it before treatment? Or did you wait for it to dry out and fall away on its own?" "Jesus, Swan." "Am I being too forthright?" "Nosey is what it is." "My Grandma had me shave her head," she says with a fond smile. "She had hair down to her hips. She used to braid it and wrap the braids around her head. And the day before her first round of chemo, she invited me over and handed me a razor." "Creepy." "Nah." Bella shakes her head. "She was still beautiful." 33

Wednesday I'm washing the supper dishes with Emmett when Mom comes into the kitchen with the cordless phone in her hand. She looks at me like she's seriously concerned and says, "The phone is for you." "Who is it?" "It's a girl." Again, it's good to know Mom has faith in me. Emmett sniggers at her surprise. I dry my hands and take the phone into the other room. "Hello?" "Hey. How's my lab partner?" "Fine. Why are you calling?" "We need to set a time to work on phase two of the term project. You told your mom you chose her snapdragons, right? She isn't going to catch us digging up her plants and freak out?" "Yeah, I told her." I should really tell her. "You free Saturday?" "No, Swan, my weekends are fully booked." "Two-o-clock?" "Make it two-thirty." "Address?"

Thursday

When I walk into the cafeteria, the first thing I notice is that Alice's usual group of friends are huddled near the food line, giggling and whispering conspiratorially. What the hell? I look around for Alice and find her at the usual table, talking to a senior. It's the guy she's been crushing on - the one who called her a lesbian the other day. He better be apologizing. Alice's friends practically hiss at me not to interrupt as I make my way over. Fuck them. I want to hear what this douche bag has to say. Then I hear Alice giggle and realize they're having a pleasant conversation. "Hey." I pull out a chair and sit across from her. Alice gives me a not-so-subtle 'go away' signal. Nice try. "Well, I should get going," he says. He sounds uncomfortable. Maybe my stare bothers him. Or maybe it's the aura of death that people perceive around me. Alice gets this panicked look on her face like she doesn't want him to leave. "Oh...okay. Maybe I'll talk to you again sometime?" Desperate, much? "Sure. I'll see you around." Alice turns right around in her seat to watch him leave. She only turns back to the table when he's taken a seat across the room with his friends. "You're such a jerk." She kicks me under the table. "Jesus, Al." That's going to bruise. "Why'd you have to go and ruin it? He was actually talking to me." "Did he apologize for calling you a dyke?" She growls and kicks me again. "I'm just looking out for you." "Well knock it off! You never want me to meet anybody or have any fun." Now that the senior is gone, Alice's friends descend upon the table and demand to know every 34

single detail of what was said. Their chatter derails our conversation, and I leave to go sit with Bella and Co. Alice and I will talk later. We each know where the other lives. Emmett sighs for the third time in five minutes. He isn't good at hiding his boredom. Mom and Dad are both busy, so he drove me in for my weekly clinic appointment. And now there's nothing for him to do but wait for two hours. "There's a hot girl that works at the gift shop," I say. It's like holding out a chew toy to a dog. He can go pursue her instead of sitting here, letting me know how bored he is. "You ever notice how nurses are only hot on TV and in movies?" "And I always thought those two were prefect representations of reality." Emmett chuckles. Sarcasm is always hit-and-miss with him, so it's nice when he gets it. "Did you hear Alice trying to talk Mom into letting her dye her hair pink?" "Good Lord." She makes it so difficult to admit to being related to her. "Yeah. Apparently she wants to imitate a different Harry Potter character now." "Mom said no, right?" I don't hold out much faith. Mom has a track record of permissive, or, as she calls it, 'free-spirited' parenting. She would let Alice dye her hair leprechaun green if it was a 'genuine expression of individuality.' For a structural architect, she can be quite a hippie. Emmett just shrugs. "She'll be asking to dye it orange tomorrow." "She was trying to chat up a senior today." Emmett laughs. "How'd that go?" "I chased him away. That pissed her off." "Tell me what happened so I can rip on her for it."

Friday

Today at lunch I try eating something other than cancer soup, yogurt or Jell-O: a cup of tapioca pudding from the cafeteria cooler. It goes down okay, but my stomach starts to hurt by the end of the period. "Don't piss me off today," I tell Swan as she sits down next to me at the lab table, "or I'll readily puke on you." "You can do it on cue?" she says with false admiration. Then she turns off the smartass and offers me a mint to suck on. "Why'd you come to class? Just go to the nurse's office if you're feeling shitty." I would, but then I'd miss the only hour of my day where I get to have conversations with someone who isn't a member of my immediate family. I can't tell her that, of course. It would over-inflate her sense of self-worth. And make you look pathetic. "I don't want to deprive you of the chance to guess what I had for lunch." "You're such an ass." She shakes her head and turns her attention to her work. After five minutes I've sucked my mint down to nothing, and I ask her for another one. "That was my last." "What good are you?" She casually elbows me in the side, and that slight jab is enough to make me puke. As I lean over the sink at the back of the room I regret that I didn't aim for her instead. That would teach her.

35

Saturday

I can hear Bella's antique engine from the end of the block. She's right on time. I can't believe I'm about to let that snarky bitch into my house. Mom better not embarrass me. She works freelance from home, and even though it's two in the afternoon she's probably still in sweats with three or four drafting pencils sticking out from her ponytail. I subtly close her office door as a preemptive measure, and then go to open the front door before Bella can ring the bell and tip Mom off to the presence of company. "Nice house," Bella says by way of greeting. "Thanks. Nice shirt." "Stop staring at my tits, Cullen." "Easy. There's hardly anything to stare at." That makes her laugh. It's sort of nice that she can take a joke about her own body. I'm still trying to train Alice to do that. Over-sensitive teenage girls are annoying. Who can't take a joke about their body? Oh fuck off, you. "The snapdragons are in the kitchen." I lead the way through the front room and down the hall towards the kitchen and our project planters. We pass by a row of family photos on the way and Bella stops by one. It's the only picture of before that Mom wouldn't let me temporarily take down: the last one before we left Seattle, when we went for an outing as a family. Alice had long hair then, and Emmett's idea of an appropriate pose for a family photo had been to pretend to crush her like the Hulk. Bella gapes at the photo. "You're a ginger?" "Swan." "Oh you poor soulless bastard." I grab her by the upper arm and start to tow her away. She tries to hold her socked feet against the tiles to take another look at the photo. "Well, maybe you're more of a day-walker." "Let's play the shut-up-or-I'll-kill-you game." I drag her into the kitchen and deposit her on one of the stools facing the island. "Stay." "Do you treat all women like dogs?" "Only the bitches." I sit down and open my biology books. I've taken Mom's snapdragon planters away from the windows for this and lined them up along the island. We've got four colors we can crossbreed: red, yellow, white and pale pink. We have to do the math for our hypothesis and projections before we can decide which colors of plants we're going to sexually violate and in what order. I term that process "plant raping" and Bella looks at me with badly feigned concern and asks, "Were you molested as a child?" Alice overhears the question on her way by and stops in front of the kitchen door. "What are you talking about?" she demands shrilly. "Church." "Edward." She stamps her little foot. "Go away." She gives Bella and I this narrow look and traipses into the kitchen to get a snack with conspicuous slowness. About halfway she gives up on giving me a dirty look and simply glares at Bella. "Call me if you want milkshakes," she says, and with her current expression even the kind offer sounds like a threat. I smirk and thank her and tell her to get the fuck out. "Sorry," I say when she's out of earshot. "Alice is...protective." Bella nods. "She knows I'll kill you." 36

6. Feb 22 to 28

Saturday

The Cullen house has a pretty sweet setup. I guess they're pretty affluent, him being a doctor and she being an architect. No wonder their kids are brainiacs ­ must be genetic. I fall in love with their kitchen the minute I see it. Granite countertops, a huge fridge, an island with a separate sink, cupboard space that goes on forever, and a gas range that looks pristine. And a dishwasher too! If I lived here I would never leave this room. I have to really focus on homework to keep from gawking at their appliances ­ their toaster looks high-tech enough to launch its own space program. We're doing the math to narrow down our hypotheses when a homey woman with caramel colored hair and more pencils than hands comes into the kitchen. Three of these pencils are sticking out of her hair, one is behind her ear and another juts out of her pocket. She yells, "Are you kids getting hungry?" up the stairs, and when she turns she jumps at the sight of me. "You didn't tell me we had company," she scolds Edward. "She doesn't count. Just pretend she's part of the chair." "It's nice to meet you. I'm Bella Swan." I lean over the island and hold out my hand to shake. Mrs. Cullen has a writer's bump the size of a grape. "Esme. Would you like a sandwich?" Esme declines any help to make sandwiches for an afternoon snack, but watching her go about it, she's sort of scatterbrained. It reminds me of Renee. She loses her butter knife three times and mixes up what kind of sandwich she's making for who, but blunders through it with a smile on her face. "Mom's got a one-track mind," Edward says. "Architecture, and nothing else." "Oh hush," she scolds him fondly. She slides a sandwich to me across the island. "What are you guys working on?" "Biology project." Esme's eyes go wide. "So you're his biology partner! We've heard so much about you!" "Reeeally?" I look at Edward out of the corner of my eye. He's concentrating awfully hard on his biology work, but he still looks ready to die of embarrassment. "You're the one with all the soup recipes, right?" "That's me." On that note, she invites me to work magic in her fan-fucking-tastic kitchen. I don't even care that I'm making cancer food for my dick of a lab partner ­ she has Wustof knives! And her blender isn't missing a blade! And Good Lord you could store five dead penguins in that fridge! "We ought to keep you around," Esme says as I start chopping vegetables. "I like your enthusiasm." "I like your kitchen," I reply. "It's very irresponsible of you to distract a dedicated student, Mom," Edward says. He's still bent over our term project. "Don't you dare kill my buzz." "Are you tired, honey?" Esme puts a hand on Edward's forehead. He leans away from her and insists he's fine. "Your sister and her buddies are going to a basketball game tonight. I was going to get you or Em to take her, but if you're not feeling well..." "I'll take her," Edward declares firmly. There's an edge of something like panic in his tone. 37

"Is she an avid basketball fan?" I ask. "This week," Esme says with a laugh. "She's trying to define herself." Edward mutters something under his breath about hippies. He watches me from under lashless lids as I pour cooked vegetables and seasoning into the blender to puree. "What's in this one?" "I'll tell you after you eat it." People carry far too many prejudices about food. They like much more than they think they do, if they don't know what they're eating. "I can't believe he wants to eat," Esme says with a smile. She pinches her son's side playfully and tells me that he's put on three pounds, like he's an infant going for monthly weigh-ins at the pediatrician's office. Edward's face flushes with a patchy blush of sheer embarrassment. And what the hell does Esme expect me to say? Three pounds? Really? What does he weigh now, ten altogether? I slide a bowl of spinach soup his way and he mutters Thank you. For some reason, Edward is really eager to drive Alice and her friends to the basketball game at the high school tonight. They've been doing fundraising for this thing all week. The donations are going toward literacy projects in the third world. "Mind if I tag along?" "Fine, whatever," he answers distractedly. "Go put on a sweater," he barks at Alice. "I'm not hot." February is pretty early in the year to be wearing a tank top and short shorts. "I'm not taking you out like that." "It's the only thing I have in our school colors." "Mom! Tell Alice to put on a sweater!" I sneak out the front door and get into my truck. I'll meet them at the game. When Edward, Alice, and two of her friends arrive at the school, she's wearing a sweater and he looks thoroughly annoyed. I wave and they make their way up the bleachers to the row of seats I've staked out for us. I'm not a big basketball fan. I'm just really, really bored of small town life. And four dollars of my ticket price goes to illiterate kids in poverty, so why not? "Who the hell are you waving at?" Edward demands of his sister. It's strange to contemplate, but I think he might be an even bigger jerk to her than he is to me. "You don't know him." "Him?" "Number twenty-three," Alice's friend says slyly. Alice elbows her. Edward and I both start looking around for number twenty-three. He's a tall guy (basketball player, duh Swan) with blond hair that is in desperate need of a trim. He's wearing the captain's armband around his bicep. "Whitlock?" Edward reads off the back of his jersey. "I told you that you didn't know him." "What's his first name?" "Jasper." "His parents couldn't find a name from this century?" "You're so mean," Alice says with a pronounced pout. "Just stop talking. No one wants to hear your negativity." I laugh and Edward starts sulking. It's an exhibition game for charity, which means there isn't a lot in the way of actual game play. The boys and girls' varsity teams are playing each other, but their plays consist of poking fun at the other side. Occasionally a few of the cheerleaders step in for players on either team, only to switch sides 38

without warning. Whenever someone scores the sound crew blasts music through the overhead speakers and the scoring team has to do ten seconds of a victory dance. Cheating is encouraged. At one point there are two balls in play, and the ref hands out penalties in the form of entertaining punishments. Lacey Walker's penalty is to crab-walk around the court to the sound of Depeche Mode, courtesy of a sadistic sound crew. This might have actually been worth the five bucks. Edward tries to hustle us out of the gym immediately when the game ends, but I'm in no hurry and neither are Alice and her friends. "Let's hang out awhile," she says. The sound crew is still playing upbeat music and the fundraising people are still walking around with bins for last-minute donations. "No. Come on, let's go." "Just wait," I say. "The parking lot is going to be chaos anyway." He sulkily resumes his seat. Alice says she's going to use the restroom. "Shit," Edward mutters as she skips away down the bleacher stairs. She takes a pretty circuitous route to the washroom, stopping to say hello and congrats to a few of the players first. Particularly the captain of the boys' varsity. From this range it looks like she's trying to flirt. She's laughing too hard and 'casually' touches his sweaty arm. "Great, she's never going to wash that hand again," Edward says. "Is that why you gave her a hard time tonight? She likes that guy?" "She's obsessed," Alice's mousy little friend whose name I can't remember interjects. "Like, obsessed." "Like, more than she is with Harry Potter," the other chimes in. Edward leans back in his seat and rests his feet on the empty row of chairs in front of us. "You're so lucky you're an only child."

Sunday

When I wake up Charlie is gone and there's a note on the fridge about fishing with his buddies. I check the contents of the fridge and find all the lunchmeats and four of the rolls gone. He plans to be gone all day, then. So I shower, set up my homework at the kitchen table, and turn on the TV for background noise. All these years of working in crowded classrooms have made background noise a necessity for concentration. Trigonometry blows. I'm saved from problem four, which looks more like a riddle to the universe than a math problem, by the phone. I lean back in my chair and grab the receiver off the wall. "Swan residence." "Bella?" "Oh no." "Bad time?" "I'm doing math." "So you won't mind being disturbed." I can hear Edward's smirk over the phone. I'm going to become rich and famous after I invent a device that allows you to remotely punch people in the face. "What do you want, Cullen?" "My mom told me to call you. She wants to invite you over for lunch." "To cook or to eat?" "Both." Hmm, another day in Edward's company...but his mom has a KitchenAid mixer... "Yeah, alright." 39

I show up at the Cullen house with a few recipes folded in my pocket. Esme lets me in and we go to her epic kitchen to start lunch. This house just exudes intelligence, from the prints on the walls to the classical piano music playing in the background. Esme gives me free reign over the fridge and cutting boards. Today's recipes are a protein-heavy soup for Edward, and spanakopita with goat cheese tartlets for those of us with adequate stomach strength. "What's a tartlet?" Esme asks. She seems to genuinely interested in everything people say to her. It's sort of nice. And her short attention span for everything non-architecture means that conversation is pleasantly varied. "It's like a mini pie shell full of yummy stuff," I say. In this case, it'll be full of goat cheese, feta, cherry tomato, and rosemary with balsamic dipping sauce. I start setting the phyllo dough into the cups of a minimuffin tray and baste them with butter to make them crispy. Meanwhile, I boil down beef stock for Edward's soup. I try not to feel relieved that I haven't seen him yet. Too much happiness tempts the Fates. Esme and I are crumbling goat cheese and feta into little pellets when the classical music falters and then re-starts. I thought it was a CD playing somewhere else in the house, but now I think it's a real person playing. Esme lets me use her pressure cooker to do the carrots. I love this woman. When they're done I put them in the reduced beef stock with a little butter, seasonings, and a spoonful of maple syrup. We have a bit of a wait while the spanakopita bakes and the soup continues to simmer, so we start to clean up the kitchen. "It's so nice that Edward has a friend like you," Esme says as we load the dishwasher. "He had a hard time making friends when we moved here, being out of school so often." His attitude can't have helped any. "He's in the living room," she continues. "Why don't you go say hi before lunch?" She directs me down the hall towards the living room ­ which, I'm given to understand, is different from their 'front room.' This house goes on forever. I wonder if Esme designed it. I peek around the doorframe and see Edward sitting at a baby grand piano with his back to me. For a complete asshole, he plays Debussy notably well. The light, mellow tunes don't match my idea of Edward Cullen, smartass extraordinaire. I tiptoe into the living room. He doesn't notice me until I sit down next to him on the bench, and then he startles so badly he jumps back and strikes six different keys at once. "What are you doing, sneaking around like that?" he demands. "I'm not sneaking. You're just exceptionally unobservant." He glares at me and begins to pack up the sheet music he was using. "You don't have to stop." "I'm done." I'm in a taunting mood, so I use three fingers and pluck out a simple version of the Addams Family theme song. Edward threatens to slam the key cover down on my fingers. I just laugh. "I didn't know you played." "Yeah, well, you don't know me that well, do you?" He's on the defensive, and I know from experience that this will quickly descend into a sulk fest. "How long have you been playing?" "Awhile." He tries to close the key cover but I hold it open. "Show me." "No." 40

I have a smattering of piano knowledge that Renee managed to impart to me over the years. I didn't inherit the music gene, though. I've got no sense of rhythm and the code that is musical staves never did make any sense to me. I know part of one song, and that's it, and I only memorized the finger placement ­ not the notes. I start to pluck out my homely little song and Edward frowns. After a minute he pinches my ring finger and moves it over to the next key. My incompetence must irk him. "Bach is rolling over in his grave right now." "This is Bach?" Edward just shakes his head at me. But he can't resist my blundering forever, and after a few minutes he starts to play along with me. His version sounds better. "Lunch smells good," he says quietly. I do believe that might have been a compliment. "Don't do that. When you're nice it fucks up the whole dynamic of this friendship." He snorts with amusement. He does that a lot. I bet his full-blown hysterical laugh is just a series of increasingly obnoxious snorts. "It's a new soup today," I tell him. He smiles with genuine pleasure. "Lots of protein. See if you can't gain another three pounds." His smile fades to a look of chagrin. "Oh shut up," he mutters. "How much do you weigh?" "Inappropriate question." It's almost time to take the tartlet shells out and check the soup. I slowly stop playing and take my hands off the keys. "I gotta get back to the kitchen." "'Kay." He doesn't look up when I leave the bench and walk away. He just keeps playing Bach much better than I ever could. I'm almost at the door when he stops suddenly and calls my name ­ my first name. I stop and turn halfway. "One twenty-eight." I don't say anything. I don't even nod. He turns back to his piano, and I turn back to the kitchen. But as I make my way down the hall in a calm, orderly manner, I'm trying to get a handle on my shock. Putting a number on thin adds a new dimension to the idea. Between the two of us there's an eight-inch height difference, but the weight difference is barely the mass of a healthy newborn. I put the soup in the blender to puree and begin to fill the tartlets with cheese and tomatoes. Ten minutes later, we all sit down to lunch. The food is a big hit ­ even the soup.

Monday

"Oh come on you bastard..." Edward mutters, as if he can bully the microscope into submission. The tray is stuck and won't lower far enough for us to use all three lenses, like we're supposed to. Maybe we can bullshit this lab and Mr. Banner will never know. I can hear Edward cracking the mint I gave him with his teeth. He's already nauseous today. He's turned away from the table with his hand over his mouth three times already, but hasn't puked yet. "Go to the nurse's office," I whisper. "I'll fudge the lab results." "I'm fine." I start sketching what I think an onionskin cell should look like. Edward slides the faulty microscope my way and I look through the eyepiece occasionally to make it look like I'm drawing an actual result. Edward lays his head down on the table and asks if I have another mint. I've turned into 41

the grandmotherly figure that always has sweets in her pockets.

Tuesday

I try to volunteer at least once a week, and the place to do that in Forks is at the local hospital or nursing home. I go to the volunteer station in the hospitality office to grab my green vest and check in with the volunteer coordinator. For the past few weeks I've been assigned to read books to the kids in the pediatric ward, which is great as far as I'm concerned. I'd much rather do that than push the squeaky book cart along the other wards. I might run into Edward again and have to deal with his sulking in biology. I step into the elevator to go up to pediatrics. On the third floor the doors open and none other than Dr. Cullen steps on. He's scrolling through his Blackberry and doesn't immediately notice me. We both get off on the fifth floor. It looks like a clean break free of awkwardness, until he notices me out of the corner of his eye. "Bella?" "Hi Dr. Cullen." "I didn't know you were a volunteer." No, I just wear this green volunteer vest for fun. "Yeah. I'm on my way to read to the kids in pediatrics." He smiles beautifully and says the more he hears about me the better I seem. When the hell has he heard about me? What has he heard? Dr. Cullen's phone beeps and we exchange a short goodbye before he hurries off to answer that emergency. I have half a mind to visit the nephrology wing, just to see if Edward is in and what he's been telling people about me.

Wednesday

If I ask Edward what he said about me at lunch or in biology, he won't give me a straight answer. He'll dodge the question or insult me, and that's just counterproductive. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he demands during biology. "I'm attempting telepathy." He leans in and stares right back, mocking me. Our noses are only an inch apart. His breath smells like mint and lime, and is surprisingly warm. I tend to think of Edward as cold ­ pale, chilly hands, cold personality, etc. I never noticed before, but there are flecks of gold in his green irises. "Hey, your eyelashes are growing back." Edward rears away from me like I've just spit in his face. He turns back to his work and rests the side of his face on his hand, blocking me from looking at him too closely. "I saw your dad last night." Edward peaks over his hand like he's afraid of what he'll hear. "He seems to be under the impression that I'm a good person." Edward smirks without humor and gives a soft snort. "My mom must have said something." Yes, he is indeed behind it.

42

Thursday

It's entirely Jake's fault that I have to do yesterday's homework at lunch. I was doing it last night like a good student, and then he called. Two hours of easy conversation later, when I realized what time it was, it was far too late to get everything done. I like talking to Jake. He's interesting and takes a genuine interest in people. Conversation just flows so effortlessly, like it does with my Mom. Jake has the ability to stay on topic, though. Mike teasingly scolds me when he notices I'm doing math at the lunch table. It's surprisingly difficult to resist the urge to flip him off. Jessica takes this opportunity to arrange a study date with Mike. I wasn't aware that either of them were registered for practical biology this semester, but I'm sure a little studying can't hurt. Who am I kidding? Both of them are going to get hurt and we'll all get to watch. I'm not making enough headway on this assignment. It's too loud in here, and I have to turn this in by the end of the day. I take my books out of the cafeteria and find a quiet place to work. The weather is sort of nice, so I go outside and take a seat on one of the seldom-used picnic tables near the parking lot. I've got twenty minutes to finish four more math problems. At five minutes each, I can probably get this done and make it to biology on time. "Swan." I look up to find Edward standing in front of me, hands in his pockets. He's squinting like this mildly bright sunlight hurts. "Cullen." I slide over on the table. He doesn't take a seat. "Math homework?" My math textbook is clearly visible right next to me. "No, Spanish." He gives me that cocky sideways smile that I hate so much, and doesn't say a word. He just rocks back and forth on his heels, watching me. "You got any plans this weekend?" "My dad and I are supposed to spend time together tomorrow." Charlie has been feeling a bit guilty about fishing so often and not spending enough time with me. Tomorrow we're supposed to go to the Blacks' for a barbeque. I summarize all this for Edward while I conclude another math problem. "Friday isn't part of the weekend." His voice is a little tense. He follows that up with, "So do you go to La Push often?" I shrug. What does 'often' really mean, anyway? "Seriously, what are you doing this weekend?" "If I tell you I'd be taking all the effort out of stalking me." Edward snorts wryly. He doesn't have a comeback, and we're silent for the time it takes me to complete another math problem. Edward picks up the completed pages of my assignment and looks them over. "If you need more time for this, I can cover for you. I'll tell Banner you went to the nurse's office or something." "No, I'm almost done." "But some of these are wrong." I snatch the papers out of his hand. I don't need an A+ in math; I just need to pass with a decent grade. "Bugger off, Cullen." He doesn't. He rudely reaches into my backpack for a pencil before taking my assignment back. "You factored wrong." He erases the work for three problems and redoes them in an impersonation of my handwriting. It takes him just three minutes, and then he gives back the pages and puts back my pencil. "See you in class." 43

"Thank you." "You owe me." Aw, fuck.

Friday

I don't think the potato salad is going to make it to the Blacks' house. Charlie has been eyeing it all afternoon. We're heading over to La Push at five to have a barbeque and spend the evening. There's probably a game on that Charlie and Billy will watch. It's weird, but going to La Push sort of feels like going home; like Charlie and I belong there in the Black's little house, like some sort of blended family. I was worried I wouldn't feel that when I left Phoenix for Forks, but I'm glad I do. Jokes about the appetites of teenage boys practically write themselves. Three burgers and six hotdogs later, Jake and I are in the kitchen washing dishes. The football game is on in the other room. "Want to take a walk when we're done?" Jake says. "It's a full moon tonight. We might be early enough to see it rise." We finish cleaning up and walk down to the beach. The water-rounded rocks glow white in the moonlight and the wind in the pines sounds the same as the water crashing against the shore. "How have you been?" The way Jake casually takes my hand doesn't even bother me ­ and I hate touchy people. "Better. I'm more settled at school now." "Making friends?" "You're still my closest friend," I tell him with a teasing elbow to the ribs. He playfully shoves me back. I tell him about my plans to apply for a job in town. He tells me about the fight Quil narrowly dodged after hitting on a senior's steady girlfriend. Jake points out the cliffs where the kids usually go diving, and I mention it's supposed to be unseasonably next week. It might even be warm enough for cliff diving. "You really want to try it?" "I really want to try it." "Your dad is going to murder me for giving you the idea." "He doesn't have to know." I'm a good liar as long as I only tell lies of omission. Flat-out falsification doesn't work so well. We're almost a mile down the beach before we realize we've walked too far and turn back. "I wish I came here more often." It's nice to have a place where I don't have to try to be anything intelligent, coordinated, obliging, etc. I am what I am at the Black house. Jake squeezes my hand. "Any time, Bella."

44

7. March 2 to 9

Sunday

Around ten I borrow Mom's car and drive over to Bella's house. Neither Chief Swan's cruiser nor Bella's antique truck are at the house, so I sit on the front porch and wait for her to get home. It's Forks on a Saturday, what could she possibly be doing that would take more than an hour? She's probably just at the grocery store or something. I don't immediately consider the possibilities that she might have made plans with other friends ­ especially those friends that live in La Push, the ones that think it's okay to casually touch her whenever they feel like it. It starts to rain so I sit in the car instead and listen to music for a while. The clock slowly creeps closer to noon. Where the hell is she? Maybe she's out with her other friends, like Jessica Stanley and Angela Weber and whoever else. Not Mike Newton, anyone but Newton. Even Jake is preferable ­ at least he's just a freshman. I should go home. I can hang out with Alice and Emmett and pretend I was never here at all. And Rosalie's in town, so there's the vague promise of a family dinner tonight. When I get home I park Mom's car by the garage, get out, and stand there and stare at Bella's Chevy. She was here the whole time. And I need a cover story for when they ask where I've been for the past two hours. When I go inside the house smells like sugar and warm chocolate. Mom is laughing in the kitchen and Alice is chirping away about something. I can't tell what because she talks so fast the words run together. "Sothenhesaid -" "Edward!" Mom says when she sees me, and holds out a beater for me to lick like I'm five years old. Screw it, she's making whipped cream and even if I get sick I'll have deprived Emmett of a beater to lick. Bella is up to her elbows in flour, rolling out dough for sugar cookies. It smells like Christmas in here. While she rolls and cuts, Alice is decorating the cookies with squeeze-tube icing and chocolate chips. "Where were you?" Mom leans in to kiss my cheek. She smells like cinnamon. "At the library." "Sothenhesaid 'maybe I'll see you around' andIwaslike, 'okay' andhewaslike, 'cool,'" Alice continues to chatter in Bella's ear. Bella has her smirk on, but I think she's sort of enjoying Alice's one-woman catastrophe. "She got her crush's email address," Mom informs me, sotto voce. "They were chatting online." Oh fuck. There's a whole arena of interactive space where I can't watch over her and counsel her not to make a fool of herself. Bella puts the last cookie cutouts in the oven to bake and begins to clean up the counter. Alice is still talking. "Imeanthat'scool, right? Iwas, like, justtryingtoplay, y'know, laidback or coolorwhatever...." "Yeah, wonderful," Bella agrees when Alice pauses for breath. "You think so?" "How old are you again?" "I'll be sixteen in two weeks." "And how old is he?" 45

"So do you think it's too aggressive for a girl to ask a guy out? Or should I just ask? Or is that too pushy?" Bella looks at me helplessly and I try, once again, to sell Alice on the idea of the Order of St. Clare. "You'd make a really cute nun," I tell her. She stamps her foot. "I am not a frigid lesbian!" "Alice!" Mom has never outgrown her fearful respect of nuns, left over from her Catholic school days. "Why don't you give Bella a tour of the rest of the house," she says to me. She's just trying to break Alice and I up so I'll stop torturing her. "I'm sure she's sick of the kitchen." "Oh, never," Bella croons. "Come on." I get off the island stool and lead the way through the rest of the ground floor. "The bedrooms and the library are on the second floor." "You have a library?" She says it like I've just informed her that we have a dungeon. "Yeah, it's sort of an all-purpose office space with lots of bookshelves." "Can I see it?" I'm leading the way upstairs when Bella stops on the third step and grabs my sleeve. Something outside has her attention. When I step down to look through the window I see Emmett and Rosalie in the back yard, tossing a football around. "Is that his girlfriend?" she asks quietly. I snort. Right, like those two would ever date. "Of course not. That's Rosalie. She's down from Seattle for the weekend." "Is she your cousin or something?" "Nah, she and Emmett have been friends since kindergarten. Lord knows why." "But they aren't dating?" "She has a boyfriend in Seattle." Rosalie is one of those girls that other girls love to hate. She's got so much going for her: amazing body, brains to go with it, affluent family and a boyfriend that completes the image of upper-middle class perfection. The reason she and I don't get along is because I think she's haughty and aggressive and she thinks I'm an unfeeling know-it-all. I take Bella up to the library and she immediately gravitates towards the bookshelves. Emmett's homework lies abandoned on one of the desks. "Wow, it's really organized," she says of the shelves. All the books are grouped by subject: medicine, architecture, fiction, music, art, etc. Bella pulls down the complete works of William Shakespeare. I don't think that book has been opened since Mom completed her English requirement as an undergrad. "Do you like Shakespeare?" "He's okay." "You seem like the King Lear type." "What's that supposed to mean?" "I think you'd get the most pleasure out of laughing at those characters' stupidity and Cornelia's revenge." "I'm only an asshole from nine to five, you know." Bella just smiles and shelves the book. "The cookies will be done soon."

Monday

Last summer my first round of chemo made me into a night owl. Between fatigue and nausea I felt 46

best between midnight and four a.m., and Mom and me ended up sitting awake a lot, drinking tea and talking. She's been a chronic insomniac for years. She used to take sleeping pills for it, but she stopped when she had kids because she wouldn't wake up if we cried in the night. She had only been back on the drug for a few years when I got sick and she immediately quit again. She was terrified that something would go wrong in the night and no one would be able to wake her up. Sometimes she still takes them on the nights that Dad is home, but if he's on call or on night shift she goes without and stays awake. We would sit in the kitchen ­ the farthest room from the bedrooms ­ and talk about stuff. She told me about how she almost switched her major from architecture to women's studies as an undergrad. "Give me a break," she said when I expressed my disgust. "I was young and idealistic. I grew up in the seventies, for crying out loud." She told me about deciding to study for her masters in the field right before she got married, because she wanted to keep at least one area of her life open for new possibilities. "I thought you and Dad got married when you were already working for Simons & Co?" They were already living in Seattle at the time ­ I knew that for a fact ­ and Mom had done her masters in her home state of Wisconsin. "Mmm-hmm." She sipped her tea. "I meant my first marriage." That was the first time in the seventeen years I'd known her that she ever mentioned being with anyone other than my dad. I couldn't picture it. "Our parents were friends," she said with a smile I couldn't read. "They approved for him, so I dated him, and we dated some more, and before I knew it three years had gone by and what used to be comfortably easy was now a pressure-cooker of a relationship." She shrugged and snorted softly. "Our families wanted it, and we couldn't think of a reason why not, so we got married. Neither of us had ever been in love. We didn't know that it would ever get better than what we had with each other." "How old were you?" "Twenty-four." "And when what happened?" "Then things got difficult." She got up to pour herself another mug of mint tea and when she came back to the table she told me that her first husband ­ she didn't call him by name ­ had wanted her to drop out of grad school and get a full time job. "I was only working part time, you see. And when I got pregnant he hounded me day and night to stop working and stay home. He had it in his head that he could boss me around now that we were married." The latter half of her explanation was lost on me. I was hung up on the part where she got pregnant. "Let's not tell your brother and sister about this conversation, all right?" she said when I asked about it. "My first husband and I had a little boy about two years after we got married." I scrambled to do the mental math. Given her age, that would have been three years before Emmett was born. It floored me that I had a sibling that I never knew about, old enough to vote and drink, possibly living back in Mom's hometown with his dad. "He doesn't live in Wisconsin," Mom corrected me. "He's buried there, though." In less than three minutes she had informed me of the existence of a brother and then of his death. She said his name had been Eliot, and that he had died of SIDS just two months after being born, and the day after his burial she had filed for divorce. "I celebrated you guys' second birthdays with such relief," she said. "I'd gotten you through infancy in one piece. I just didn't know that there were bigger problems waiting to come along." She reached over and ran a hand through my thinning hair. "I'm sorry, Mom." She acted like she hadn't heard me. 47

Before I leave for school I make Mom's favorite breakfast and leave it on her desk with a cup of coffee. She always gets up, goes into her office, and works for an hour or two before considering food or a shower. Today, she's getting taken care of. Today's her firstborn's birthday. She doesn't know I know. It took me awhile to find out, going through online records of marriage licenses to find out her first married name, and then through birth announcements in the archives of her hometown newspaper. There was even a picture. He was a pretty cute kid. I think. All newborns look the same to me: round and pink and flat-nosed. "What are you sucking up to Mom for?" Alice asks with a shrewd look as we get into the car to go to school. "Nothing. Just a feeling." "What feeling?" "That she's going to have a hard day." "What did you do, Edward?" "Nothing." "Whatever you did wrong, Mom's gonna find it. She has a sixth sense for bullshit," Emmett says. He doesn't say it like a warning, more like he's gleefully anticipating my head on a platter by dinnertime tonight. "I didn't do anything." "Riiiight."

Tuesday

It's a blissfully sunny day in Forks, and unseasonably warm to boot. The sunshine perks everybody up and the warm weather means t-shirts and shorts for the optimists. The weather is so fickle here that I don't hold out hope that the sun will last until noon. Bella shows up to school in a summer skirt and blouse. It's sort of weird to see her shins and arms; I didn't really believe she was that pale all over. "Aren't you hot in that?" she asks. "No." Long sleeves work well for me in all climates, at least for the next six weeks or so. Bella gets a lot of compliments on her outfit over lunch, both from the girls and from Newton and Eric. They both have dirty fantasies about the easy access that skirt offers written all over their faces. Fucking shoot me. Then she announces her intention to go cliff diving with her Quileute friends while the weather is nice. Jessica tries to talk her out of it and Mike says, "Are you sure that's safe?" "The La Push kids do it all the time." "Yeah, but Bella..." "You want to come?" "Er..." "You chicken?" She smirks while he flushes. I relish his regret for opening his big fat fucking mouth. "Maybe when it's warmer." "Chicken," Eric taunts him. "Did I say chicken?" Bella interjects. "I meant pussy." There is something bizarrely exciting about hearing that girl swear. It's the way she looks like a china doll; her language takes people off guard. "Fine, fine. I'll go," Mike accepts her challenge. 48

"I'll pick you up at four." I hate the way that sounds. "Mind if I tag along?" Bella shrugs. "Whatever." Whatever? Maybe that's her polite way of telling me to fuck off? Nah, if she's willing to call Newton a pussy she's probably willing to tell me to fuck off to my face. Still, 'whatever' is so dismissive... "If you don't want me to go, I won't." The other people at the table look down at their plates. They all secretly want to exclude me anyway. This cliff diving excursion is no different ­ Mike is going, which means Eric will go to see him break his fucking neck and Jessica will tag along to worship him. Angela might come to be the voice of reason, and Ben follows her around like a puppy. And where does Cancer Boy fit in? "Don't be so sensitive, Cullen," Bella tells me. "It's narcissistic and boring." I snort. She nudges me with her foot under the table. What the fuck? After school, I ride back to the Swan house with Bella. I'll carpool with her and Mike to the La Push beach to cliff-dive. "You're not going to dive, are you?" she says as we drive to Mike's house. "No, I'll just watch and phone the paramedics." "Designated Pessimist; got it." When Mike gets in the truck I have to slide over to the middle seat, which worsens Mike's already bad mood. He has designs on Bella, and doesn't like Cancer Boy getting in the way. You really need to stop referring to yourself in the third person. It's narcissistic and boring. At least she doesn't like him back. Mike starts to talk about some TV show that neither of us has heard of, so Bella turns on the stereo the second he pauses for breath. Her truck is so old that the sound system only plays cassettes. "She's so Cold" by the Rolling Stones comes on. Fucking perfect. "You know this song?" Bella says when she sees me grinning. We both start to sing along with the chorus. Newton doesn't know the words. That dipshit. He tries to talk during the instrumental bridge and Bella turns up the volume and drums on the steering wheel. This chick is awesome when she's annoying someone who isn't me. Mike is good and pissed by the time we pull of the road not far from the cliffs. A VW Rabbit and Jessica's car are already parked on the shoulder. A voice I don't recognize calls hello through the screen of trees that separates the cliff edge from the road. I guess they heard Bella's truck coming. We make our way through the trees to the spot where they stop and the cliff falls away into the Pacific. Angela and Jessica are sitting on a large rock, talking with a stocky Quileute whose name escapes me. I'm sure I met him that night at the beach. He's flirting with the girls, but not having much luck. Bella walks right up to Jake and gives him a hello hug. I'd hate to be Mike Newton right now ­ cold shouldered by the chick he wants to move on, roped into cliff diving, and supplanted by Cancer Boy and a freshman. Maybe he'll get struck by lightening too. I take a seat on the rock shelf next to the girls and they inch over like I'm contagious. Jake grins at Bella and asks if they're jumping together. She agrees and the divers start to strip. She's got a bathing suit on under her clothes. The Quileutes take off everything but their pants or shorts. Mike hangs back like a dweeb until they peer pressure him into stripping down, and he stands there shivering in a bathing suit like a complete dork. "You first," the one named Embry says to Mike with a wicked grin. 49

"Me? This wasn't even my idea." "You're here, aren't you?" Mike continues to bicker like a twat until the stocky boy gets bored of listening to it and jumps first. It takes him a full four seconds to hit the water. I can't believe Bella wants to do this. The first boy's jump gets her jazzed to try it, and she and Jake take a running start at the edge. He grabs her hand at the last second, and his stronger legs pull her out farther from the cliff edge with the force of his jump. Thank God. Wouldn't it be just her luck, to not jump far enough and end up hitting the rocks below? I get up and stand on the edge after she jumps, looking down on the dark water below. It takes her awhile to surface, and when she does my heart starts beating again. Reckless fucking bitch. She and Jake have to duck under a few waves as they swim back to shore, and then it's a long barefoot walk back up to the top. By the time they get here Bella's feet have little nicks on them from walking over the rough ground with uncallused feet. She doesn't notice, though. She's just grinning and asks to do it again. Newton is bitching and moaning about the cold like a bratty child. He can't be induced to jump twice. That's going to make it really hard for Jessica to worship him. Why am I surrounded by sluts and morons? The sun is setting by the time Bella can be convinced to quit. Mike gets a ride back to Forks with Angela and Jessica, and I ride with Bella. We make a detour to the Black house first, where Jake helps Bella clean and bandage her foot wounds. "You should have kept your socks on or something," he says. His hands look too big to bandage her little foot, but he's oddly dexterous for such a gangly kid and Bella never even flinches as he wraps her heels in gauze. "I'll remember that for next time." Jake chuckles at her undying enthusiasm. "That wasn't even a very high point to jump from," he says. Don't give her any ideas, please. "What would you say to driving home?" Bella says when we leave the Black house. She holds her key ring out to me questioningly. "You tired?" She climbed that hill twelve times today, at least. She nods and tosses me her keys. We're only about a mile outside La Push when Bella falls asleep, curled up with her knees to her chest. She looks deceptively innocent in her sleep, and maybe even sort of adorable. I bet lions look like that when they sleep, too - right before they wake up and tear your liver out for breakfast. I take the highway towards the far side of Forks. I'll drive to my house first, and she can make the short drive back home to hers. That way I won't have to call Mom for a ride, and she won't get the opportunity to embarrass me. "Edward?" Bella says. "Hmmm?" She doesn't continue and when I look over she appears to be asleep. She mumbles something incoherent and I have to hold my breath to keep from laughing. Bella talks in her sleep. How fucking perfect is that? And why the hell did she say my name? She's dreaming about you. It's a coincidence. I bet she has a dirty mind. It's just because we hung out today, is all. Five bucks says you can cop a feel without her waking up. Dude, you're me. I know how broke you are. 50

We hit a pothole and Bella jolts in her seat. She groans sleepily and says my name again. I think the bump woke her for real. "Yeah?" "Harder." Yep, she's still asleep. Yep, she has a dirty mind. "What harder?" "Come on." "Okay, I'll do it harder." Jesus, it's hot in here. A little crease appears between Bella's brows while the rest of her face remains relaxed in sleep. "Aw, you broke it," she says. I snort. So much for it being a dirty dream. "Sorry." "Y'idiot." "Hey now." Bella begins to giggle under her breath like a maniacal elf. I think she's won the Weird Award this week. The giggles only last a minute, and then she's silent for the rest of the drive, even when I purposely swerve into potholes to try to get her going again. I don't want to wake her up when we get to my place, on the off chance that she might say something else if I let her continue sleeping. But she needs to go home. Her dad is probably wondering where she is. I jostle her awake and she yawns so widely her jaw pops. She thanks me for driving most of the way back. "It was kinda cool, you coming out today," she says. "Did you have fun?" "It was interesting." I nearly had a heart attack every time she jumped. "You should come out with us more often." She slides across the bench seat and wishes me a good night. I like the way she says goodnight, like by wishing it on me she can actually will the night to be good. Then she reaches out and gives me a sideways hug across the seat. She doesn't hug me like I'm made of glass. She wraps her arms right around me and holds me like she wants me there. She throws herself into it and genuinely lends me her body for the space of that embrace. "Now get out of my car." The light is still on under Alice's door when I get inside. I bet she watched that hug from her bedroom window. I'm never going to hear the end of it tomorrow. But for now, I prepare for bed in a daze, and fall asleep with the scents of pine and salt and Bella on my skin.

Wednesday

We have to measure the plants in biology again today and extend the support frames we made out of popsicle sticks and scotch tape. Bella does the dirty work while I tape sticks together and write down the measurements. She has call Jake written on the back of her hand again. She just saw him yesterday; what could she possibly have to say to him already?

Thursday

I habitually panic every time I hear the squeaky wheels of the book cart coming down the dialysis 51

ward. Then I see it's an old man in a green volunteer vest today, and I relax. Luckily, I haven't seen Bella here for a while. It was fucking embarrassing to be seen just the once. I didn't know how to deal with it ­ it wasn't like I had any visitors other than family when I was still sick ­ and its hard to prepare for an awkward meeting like that. I cling to the numbers the doctors and nurses give me on my bloodwork, watching my kidney function fluctuate between sixty and eighty percent. My renal system was shot to shit by last November, and I was staring another transplant in the face. But I got lucky ­ after that round of chemo my kidneys bounced back a little bit. And I've been getting better, slowly. Maybe I won't need the boost dialysis gives me by this time next year. Mom tosses aside her magazine and turns to me for conversation. "How was school?" "Fine." "How are your friends?" "They're okay." "Alice is sure getting close with that boy she's been mooning over." Jesus Christ, I thought that phrase died with the dinosaurs. "Is she?" Maybe that's why she hasn't been hanging around me lately, prying for attention; she has someone else to fix her annoying energies on. I'm almost hurt by that. "Do you know him?" "No." "Have you heard anything? Does he seem like a good kid?" "You know he's eighteen, right?" "Age is just a number." "Not when your fifteen year old daughter is involved." Mom smiles condescendingly and strokes my cheek with the backs of her fingers. "You worry so much for such a young man," she says. "You always were like that; an old soul, I guess." "Mom." "And entirely too rational, too." "Mom." She just chuckles at me. "When you were a baby the slightest things used to upset you. You were such a sensitive child." Time for a subject change. "Are you really going to let Alice go out with that guy?" "He hasn't asked her out yet." "That doesn't answer my question." "Your dad and I haven't discussed it." Dad will never go for it. Alice is a daddy's girl; he'll tell her to wait before dating...maybe until she's thirty or so?

Friday

We have a work period in biology, and after she finishes the assigned questions, Bella begins to make a grocery list in her notebook. When she's done that she starts making a list of stuff that can be found at the hardware store. "Building something?" "Yeah," she answers absently. "What?" "Jake and I are doing this project." 52

"What is it?" She's so distracted that a noncommittal grunt is the only answer I receive. She's been hanging out with Jake a lot. He smiles at her too much. And touches her too often. I bet he has designs on her, too. Every guy seems to. Do you? Shut up. She'd never go for it. I don't think of her like that. Right. She's annoying. I bet she's a moaner... Jesus Christ. "Your shirt looks nice." "Eyes off the tits, Cullen." "What tits?" Perfectly palm-sized tits. Will you shut the fuck up? She sees through you, you know. She doesn't know a goddamn thing about me. That terrified, are you? Bella puts a hand on my face and physically turns my head to get me to stop staring. It's Dad's day off today, and he suggests a family outing to go to dinner. I feel tired and my head hurts, but stuff like this means a lot to him; he didn't exactly have a happy childhood. I'll probably end up ordering Jell-O dessert off the kids' menu, but I can play along and pretend to have a good time. We go to Forks' only restaurant, a lodge-style diner with pictures and paraphernalia stuck on the walls. Alice snags a children's menu and a pack of crayons from the hostess station ­ she could have a promising career as a pickpocket ­ and orders the sorbet and Jell-O dessert so I don't have to. The waitress has the nerve to give her a judgmental look. "I bet she thinks I'm anorexic or something," Alice says when the waitress leaves. I ordered a burger on Alice's behalf. She insists on keeping the kids' menu though, and colors the cartoons on it while we wait for food. She's half-finished the duck on skis when she very suddenly quits and folds the menu away into her coat pocket. "Did you suddenly remember your age?" She completely ignores my question and leans back in her chair. I follow her gaze and see a table of teenagers just come in. Her favorite basketball player is among them. Mom notices too and smirks at Alice's behavior. For the next five minutes, Alice covertly watches the other table from around Emmett's shoulder. She looks a little peeved when the waitress flirts with them ­ only trying to improve her tip ­ and begins to fidget while we wait for food. Shit. Now is a really bad time to have forgotten her Ritalin. "I have to use the restroom." She pushes her chair back and gets up. It takes me a second to realize that the path to the restrooms will take her right by the other table. "Me too." She doesn't immediately notice me following her, but when she gets close to the other table her pace slows a bit, like she's planning to stop and try the 'I didn't see you there' line. My hand on her shoulder solves that problem as I march her forward to the restrooms at the end of the hall. "Edward!" she hisses. "Please, we're in public ­ and you look desperate and stupid when you try to flirt." 53

She gapes at me for a few seconds, and then the water works start. She kicks me in the shin and whirls away into the women's restroom. I can hear her crying from the hallway. Shit. I limp back to the table just in time for the food to arrive. "Where's Alice?" "Restroom." I don't have much of an appetite, but Emmett is already laying into his burger and I told myself I'd play along tonight. I pick at the Jell-O and sorbet Alice ordered. Mom knows something is up. She quietly slips away from the table a few minutes later and heads toward the restrooms. She's gone for twenty minutes. "What happened? Where's Alice?" Dad asks when Mom finally gets back to the table. "She wasn't feeling well. I took her home." Oh, fuck. When we get home I try to apologize to Alice, but she won't open her bedroom door and yells some very colorful things at me when I try to apologize through the door. "Let her cool off until morning," Mom says. I wonder how much Alice told her about what happened.

Saturday

I wake up to a note on my pillow in very girly handwriting: You're an asshole. I write I know. Sorry, on it and slip it under Alice's door. I can hear Mom at work in her office already. The rest of the house is still asleep, so I seek out a solitary breakfast. I don't even think about my plans before I jump in the shower. Today is Saturday, so naturally I will go to the Swan house to harass my friend and lab partner. That's just the way weekends work now. I pinch myself as I shower, trying to judge where the weight is gaining back fastest. My thighs seem to have gained the most, but my stomach is a close second. Altogether it's still only eight pounds; not even enough to keep my hipbones from poking out like that. The only significant improvement is that my lowest ribs aren't as obvious through the skin anymore. I can't wait until I can get rid of that fucking central line. I wonder who the fuck that guy is as I pass the mirror on my way to get dressed. I throw on my one shirt and pair of jeans that actually fit. These clothes have the odd illusion of making me look less thin, which is weird. I guess it's because I don't swim in them. This is the shirt that made Bella touch me that one time, when I was feeling fucking awful. She had the most disconcerting look of unguarded desire on her face. It turned my whole day around. I'm digging through my drawer for my black toque when Alice knocks on the doorframe. She doesn't look happy. "Are you going out?" "Yeah." "Could you drop me off at Charlotte's house on your way?" I owe her, but... "I'm headed in the opposite direction." "Where are you going?" "Bella's." Mom should be able to give her a ride to her friend's house. I'm probably the last person Alice wants to be alone in a car with right now; she only asked out of convenience. I find my black toque and jam it down on my head. I grab my shoes out of the closet and straighten up to find her giving me a shrewd look. "You're not falling in love with her, are you?" 54

"What the fuck planet are you on?" She smiles with great satisfaction, like a cat with a bowl of cream. "Good. Sorry, it was just an errant thought." "Well keep those to yourself." I put my shoes on and get out of dodge before she remembers to ask me again about a ride. When I get to Bella's house, the garage door is open and she's working in an oversized plaid shirt. The garage floor is covered in dozens of blackened car parts. She walks around them with a notebook and camera, cataloging each part before laying it in a milk crate. "Hi." "You again?" she says without looking up. "What time is it?" "About eleven-thirty." "How long are you here for?" I shrug. "Whatever." "Have you eaten?" "Sort of." "Want to help me sort and catalogue?" "Is this the project you're doing with Jake?" "Part of it." She can never answer a question with a complete answer, can she? It's like her mission in life is to enflame my curiosity at every possible opportunity "I'll help you catalogue." "Soup first," she declares. "Wanna help?" So we leave the car part cemetery in the garage and go inside. Bella washes the grease off her hands and we chop and boil and measure out the seasonings for the original carrot and pea soup. Bella catches me licking honey off my finger and smiles. "You've got a dirty mind, Swan." She scoffs. "You're sweet, not sexy." And my ego crawls away to die. "I think you're a pretentious bitch." "I think you're a narcissistic asshole." You know, I'm kind of glad we got that out of the way. It eases the tension. Bella reaches up on her toes to grab the blender off the top shelf and the highest button on her shirt pops open. She glares at me accusatorily and tells me to stop undressing her with my eyes. I burst out laughing while she deadpans. "Don't die laughing," she says as she plugs in the blender. "I had a much more dramatic murder in mind for you." "Still planning to kill me, are you?" I tease her. She points a spatula at me like a gun and tells me to count on it. I put the boiled vegetables in the blender jug while Bella measures out the seasonings and honey. "Do you have anything important to say?" she asks with her finger hovering over the power button. "Actually -" She starts the blender and cuts me off. The phone rings and Bella goes into the living room to answer it while the blender runs. Her side of the conversation is all yeses and no's, except for the "Hey Jake," at the beginning. What the hell does he want now? He's already got her involved in some project that has taken over the whole Swan garage. And Bella doesn't seem like the most mechanically inclined person ­ I bet she has an ulterior motive for helping him. While she's on the phone I take bowls and spoons out for serving. It's a short call, and when she hangs up the first thing she says is, "Let's eat." 55

I grab the blender handle to pour the soup into bowls. The heat of it takes me by surprise ­ the vegetables must have transferred their heat along the glass ­ and I drop it with a curse. Steaming hot soup spills down the front of my shirt and all over the counter. "Fuck!" Damn it, that's hot. "Oh shit." Bella grabs me by the arm and tows me down the hall into the laundry room. "Take your shirt off, I'll wash it right away." It's so uncomfortably hot that I pull it over my head without protest and hand it to her. She tosses it in the washbasin and runs hot water over it. Most of the soup comes off, but there's a big orange stain that she covers with spray-on stain remover. Mom's going to give me hell for ruining a new shirt. "Are you burnt?" She looks over at me for the first time and her eyes settle on the middle of my chest. I look down. The outline of my central line is just visible through my undershirt. I turn my back to her and stupidly clap a hand over it, like hiding works retroactively. Bella leaves the basin and goes to one of the baskets of folded laundry. "Here." She passes a faded polo over my shoulder. "It's my dad's. It might not fit, but..." "Thanks." I pull it over my head. As I'm buttoning it up to the collar Bella leans close to my shoulder and whispers, "I don't think it's weird or disgusting." Fuck me. I leave the laundry room without a word and start to clean up the orange puddle on the kitchen floor. Lunch is ruined, but Bella dismisses it readily. "Second shelf of the fridge," she says, and waves me away from the kitchen so she can mop the worst of it up. When I try to help she banishes me to the table and reiterates her statement about the fridge. When I open the door I find little Tupperwares of green Jell-O stacked and waiting. "Swan..." "Just shut up and eat. I don't need you passing out from low blood sugar." I hate being reminded how fragile I am. Nonetheless, I take a cup of Jell-O and sit down to eat it. "Thank you." "You're welcome." Bella's project with Jake involves cataloguing and storing car parts that he has procured from various sources (junked cars) for later use or resale. Apparently Jake's quite the gear head, and his workshop isn't large enough to hold this stockpile. In exchange for the catalogue and storage, he gives he regular (necessary) tune-ups on her antique Chevy. "Have you ever thought about saving up to buy a car that was built in this decade?" "Cars today aren't built to last," she says. "Sales are leases in disguise. That truck is older than my dad and it runs like a dream." "A really slow, loud dream with low fuel economy?" She mutters something under her breath that sounds like "Stupid shiny Volvo drivers," and shoves a notebook and pen into my hands. "You take notes." We go up and down her lines of car parts. She reads out the serial numbers engraved by the manufacturers while I compile the list. Every hour or so she gets up and comes back with another JellO cup. "I'm not going to pass out," I assure her the third time she does it. "It's not like I'm diabetic or anything." "You know you'll get sick less if you graze." I have nothing to say to that, so I just eat the Jell-O and take down serial numbers. It takes us three hours to catalogue it all. Bella stacks some of the milk crates against the wall of the garage. The rest she says will have to go in the shed out back. 56

We have to move some stuff around in the shed to make room for the boxes. The shed smells like stale fishing tackle and wet wood. It's not insulated, with just plywood walls and a sheet metal roof. It's such a rainy climate that the wooden walls are probably always wet. We've just got all the stuff put away when the heavens open and a torrential downpour starts. It's a flash flood in the making. "Aw, hell," Bella says. We stand back from the door and wait for the rain to let up before venturing back across the lawn. It can't hold out long at this rate. The shed is too musty to close the door so we leave it open and watch the rain fall like a solid sheet of water. Bella leans her shoulder against the shelf and begins to twist her hair around her finger absentmindedly. "Days like this I miss Phoenix," she says. "Are you and Jake a thing?" Dude, you really need to work on delivery of really really really dumb questions. Bella looks at me with raised eyebrows. "Inappropriate question." "Fine. He just seems a little young, is all." She doesn't say anything. I can't stand the silence. "What is he, fifteen?" "What kind of cancer did you have?" "Brain tumor." She laughs in my face. "You are so full of shit." "Are you calling me a liar?" "You are a liar." "Why would I lie about that?" "You are lying." She grabs my wrist and shakes my hand between us like a puppet. "Brain tissue transplants aren't approved for cancer patients." I yank my hand away from her and pull my cuffs down over my palms. Damn her to hell. "What are you, a doctor?" "Those scars on your hands are from graft-versus-host. You had some kind of transplant, and it wasn't for a new brain. That might have helped though, come to think of it." "Fuck you." "Shouldn't have lied about it." When is this fucking rain going to let up? "And no," she says calmly, "Jake and I are not a thing. We're just very close." Oh, how I hate her. "Did your grandma die of cancer? Or did she kill herself when it became inevitable?" Bella looks at me with haunted eyes and doesn't say anything. After a minute she doesn't seem so haunted anymore ­ it feels more like she can see right through me and all the bullshit that surrounds this fucked up situation. "Thought about that, have you?" she murmurs. "Pills or rope? Or do your parents have a gun? Were you going to asphyxiate in that nice Volvo? It would take awhile, in that big three-car garage. Wristcutting is too dramatic, even for you." She says all this in a slow whisper like she's lulling a child to sleep on promises of sweet dreams. "No," she says. "You were never going to fall on your sword; you don't have it in you." I feel like I'm about five inches tall and naked in front of a crowd. How dare she pretend that she knows me? Why can't she just tell me to fuck off when I'm an asshole, like a normal person would, instead of pushing back and digging into painful places? "You don't know a fucking thing," I whisper back. She smirks sadly. "Pills were your first choice. Your mom's an insomniac. She told me. You were going to attempt suicide like a woman so someone could have time to find you and rescue you and fawn over you some more." I shove her back against the shelves in a knee-jerk reaction. Bella goes limp and absorbs the blow 57

with her shoulders. I shouldn't have done that. She rights herself and rolls her shoulders to stretch. "Did you have a cancer with a low cure rate? Let me guess ­ lymphoma." "Will you stop fucking asking me about what I had?" I say through clenched teeth. The rain has slowed to a gentle patter. I can't stand to be in here anymore, and march across the lawn to get away from her. The back door leads to the kitchen, and once there I stop and debate whether I should stay and fight with her some more. She can't just say shit like that and get away with it. Bella stops in the threshold of the back door and watches me with a grim expression. "Just tell me." "It's fucking irrelevant, Swan," I growl at her. "I don't have it anymore." Bella folds her arms over her chest and shakes her head slowly. "It's not irrelevant. It's still killing you faster than I ever could." Hearing that makes me feel cold in an entirely unpleasant way. It's the fear of imminent death, creeping back from its recent dormancy. "You don't know a goddamned thing." "Why does it bother you so much that I want to know what kind of cancer you had? How come you never want to talk about it?" "Because!" She's pissed me off to bad I can't help but shout. Raising my voice is the only way I can keep myself from tearing her head off. "It's the most obvious fucking thing about me! It's what everybody fucking notices! I was a person before, God damn it, not a fucking diagnosis! I don't want you to have any fucking details because I don't want you to think of me in terms of my illness! Do you know how humiliating it is to be reduced to numbers and labels and a fucking progress chart, taking poison for medicine and feeling like shit all the time?" I kick the nearest thing ­ a yellow dining chair ­ and it goes flying across the kitchen tiles. Bella watches it go with an expression of vague interest. "You think it's a big fucking joke, making light every time I puke in class or miss lectures to crash in the nurse's office. Fuck you. You have no idea what I put up with, and on top of it there's your stupid questions and remarks about how I look and you think you know everything about me. You don't know a single. Fucking. Thing, Swan. You're such a ­!" There is no word for how much I hate her right now. I growl through my teeth before abandoning the search for the right insult and yelling 'Fuck you!' at her. I turn on my heel and march out through the living room. It's drizzling again as I cross the driveway and slide into the car. Jesus Murphy, my stomach hurts. It's knotted up with stress and my hands are shaking as I try to put the key in the ignition slot. I drop the key in the dark around my feet. "Fuck." The passenger door opens and Bella slips into the seat beside me. What else you got? her face says. Nothing. I have nothing left. You've taken it all. I've got no more energy left to fight her. I spent it all in the shed and kitchen and now I'm just sore and miserable and want nothing more than to crawl away to lick my wounds. My head falls forward until my forehead rests on the steering wheel. My stomach hurts. My head hurts. I can't believe I said those things to her. Why did I kick her furniture like a kid throwing a fit? How could I have said all that to her? How could I have asked that about her dead grandma? What the fuck is wrong with her that she comes back for more abuse? This is possibly the most ashamed I have ever felt in my entire life. I curl my arms up around the steering wheel and dash, surrounding my throbbing head. My own little cocoon of shame and remorse. I feel Bella's hand on my back. "Come inside," she says. "You shouldn't drive when you're this upset." "I'm fine." I slowly straighten up. I am so not fine. "If you're leaving, I'm coming with you," she states calmly. "Or, you can stay here a while longer. 58

Come inside. I'll make us tea. We can talk." Her hand is still on my back. "Please don't touch me." She takes her hand away. The moment it's gone I almost wish I had it back. Almost. I open the door and step out. "I'm sorry ­ about your grandma." "She didn't commit suicide." Bella links her arm with mine like we're out for an afternoon stroll across the lawn. "She died at hospice. It wasn't pretty." "I'm sorry." Bella laughs suddenly as we step through the front door. "She would have hated you." "Do you?" "You're growing on me." I warm my hands around my mug while Bella puts the milk back in the fridge. I've straightened up her kitchen and apologized about kicking the chair. She accepted it graciously. Bella is being nice for once. She brings her mug to the kitchen table and takes the seat adjacent to mine. She sits in it sideways, facing me, and moves her hand gently around the back of my collar. "Y'know," she says contemplatively, "you're sort of beautiful. I never did tell you." She takes her hand away and I mumble an excuse about needing to use the bathroom. Once removed from her, shut up in that private little room, I hang my head in my hands and wonder how the hell I got into this mess. I regularly fight with my only remaining friend. Everyone wonders why she bothers to hang out with me. She must wonder, too. It's only a matter of time before she begins to dodge my acquaintance. You've got a thing for her, you know. It wouldn't matter so much, otherwise. Fuck, if Newton was the one hanging out with her every weekend he'd have her on the couch downstairs by now, breathless from making out and her clothes stretched out of shape from being groped. But does she want to be treated that way? It's a nice mental picture...of her, anyway. You look disgusting. And me? What do I do? I pick a fight with her and then insult her dead grandma. In theory, I wouldn't even do that to someone I really hated. (No, not even Newton.) Bella opens the bathroom door and I lift my head out of my hands. "Can't you fucking knock?" "Knock knock." "Jesus, Swan." I hang my head again and pray for the strength to deal with her pretentious bullshit. "Knock knock," she repeats more insistently. "Who's there?" "You look like you need a hug." "That's not a joke." She comes in and takes a seat next to me on the edge of the tub. This is starting to feel like an intervention. "I wasn't going to kill myself." She wraps an arm around my back. "I know. I said I knew you didn't have it in you." "You make it sound like a weakness." Bella chuckles darkly. "I think you've got more hope in you than you let on. You wouldn't give up on something unless it was really and truly hopeless." "Don't pretend you know me." She smiles to herself like that's funny. "I don't know why Jess thinks you're hard to read. Everything 59

you think shows in your hands." She pokes my third knuckle. "Must be because you're a musician." "You talk to Jess about me?" "She brought it up." "Did you encourage her?" "She thinks you're cute." "Really?" "Actually, she thinks you're a creep." Bella winks. I shrug her arm off and she lets go without protest. "I can't wait to get out of here." "Of this house, or this town?" "Out of Forks." "Where would you go?" I shrug. "Probably back to Seattle." "It wouldn't be the same. It's why in books 'you can't go home again.'" "Oh, like you're never going back to Phoenix." "Not to live." "But you fit in there." "I don't like to repeat experiences." "You're crazy." "You're a little desperate." I hate that she says shit like that, especially because she's right. "Wouldn't you be?" "I don't know." She knits her fingers together over her knees. "You don't really want to go back to Seattle, though. You just want to go back to a time when things were easier, and that time was in Seattle. It's misplaced desire." "Thank you, Freud." She puts on a fake Austrian accent and asks if I've fucked my mother yet. That bitch can make me laugh when I feel like doing anything but. "Let's go back and finish our tea." "I think I should probably go home. Emmett might need his car tonight." We head downstairs and exchange trite goodbyes in the foyer. It's going to be a long, tortured drive home. I'm just about to step out when she tells me to wait and heads down the hall to the laundry room. We almost forgot about my shirt. She gives me my laundered shirt and says I can give Charlie's back to her at school on Monday. I thank her and say goodbye, but just as I turn to leave I think better of it and stop. I lean in to whisper in her ear, "It is weird and disgusting." I'm halfway across the driveway to my car when she calls after me with a sultry smile in her voice, "You're full of it, Cullen." I crawl across the bed and starfish with my head in the pillow. Once home and nested, something inside me relaxes and tears well without intention or effort. I just lay there quietly while my eyes water and my throat aches. Alice slips in quietly and lies down with me. She wraps her little arms around me and pillows her head between my shoulder blades. "I hate it that she hurts you," she murmurs. "She doesn't, Al; I'm already hurting." She whimpers like a wounded puppy and squeezes me harder. "I'm sorry ­ about that guy." "You were looking out for me. That, and it takes too much energy to be pissed at you. I've got better things to do." 60

"I fucked up." "It's okay." "Alice." "Do you not want me to forgive you?" "Can you please just be mad at me?" "Would it make you feel better?" "Yes." "I love you," she says. "Strange brother o'mine." She kisses my shoulder and gets off the bed. "I'm not mad, but I will make you a milkshake." Alice makes the milkshakes extra thick. We need spoons to eat them. She suggests that we take our food out to the porch swing. Dad and Emmett are upstairs and Mom is still in her office. The porch is the most private place next to the garage. "Feeling better now?" I nod and take another bite of peach milkshake. There's a bitter aftertaste to this one; she's used too much sugar product. I don't tell her that, though, because it might diminish the gesture. "What happened?" "I dunno." "Did she say something?" "Yeah, but I started it." "Tell me." "Nah." Alice pouts. When that trick fails to work its magic she makes her lip tremble and whimpers. "I think you might have been right about her." Alice immediately snaps out of her fake whimpering. "What?" "I might like her." "I thought so. You're always going over to her house and when Mom asks about your day you talk about lunch and biology and -" "Will you shut up?" "I made you a milkshake ­ share your drama with me, damn it." Her petty demand actually makes me smile. "Fine. You know how when you're talking to her she can make you feel like you're the only person in the world?" "Yeah." "She can turn that around and make you feel very small and insignificant, too." "Is that what happened tonight?" I turn a bite of milkshake over in my mouth while I think about my answer. "Not entirely." Bella did build me back up again after she tore me down, and I incurred her wrath entirely through my own fault. Alice impatiently prompts me to continue with a circular hand gesture. "It feels like she can see right through people." "And you like her?" "Maybe." "Why?" Because I haven't been seen the way she sees me for a year. "Why do you like that guy you've been chasing?" It's the perfect subject change. Alice goes all dreamy and slouches down on the porch swing like her bones have turned to goo. 61

"Because, because, because," she murmurs like that's a complete answer, with a little "mmh!" of pleasure on the end. "Do you really think he's interested in you?" The question isn't an insult this time. I'm genuinely wondering. Alice makes a face. "No. He has a girlfriend." "Anyone I know?" She gives me a look that reads Who do you know? "Point taken." Alice huffs. "Her name's Maria. And of course she just has to be freakin' gorgeous." "Is she that girl who ran for class president?" "No, you're thinking of Marie Soto. Maria looks nothing like her. She's got long dark hair and she's curvy and she's from Mexico so she has that stupid sexy Latin thing going for her." Alice stabs her milkshake with her spoon. "I guess they're pretty serious?" Alice only groans and buries her spiky little head in the crook of my shoulder. Poor kid. I guess it was inevitable that eventually she'd learn how bad unrequited love sucks. I'm sorry to say it, but I'm actually kind of glad that she feels it now, before anything happened with that guy, than if she had been allowed to get close to him and become attached and lose her adorable innocence. "You're better off without him, Al." I give her a squeeze. "Think about it: if you started dating now he'd graduate in two months, and then you'd only have the summer together before he goes off to college. You're a little young to have a long-distance relationship." "If he goes to school in Seattle we might be able to visit on weekends." Yeah, and he can cheat on her with college girls every other day of the week. "I think you're better off not touching this one. You'll find another guy to crush on and make an ass out of yourself for." "What about you and Bella?" "What about it?" "Are you going to ask her out?" "No." "Why not?" she whines. "Because she's neither blind nor insane, and would therefore never date me." "She's sorta friends with you." "That's different." Alice snorts like she doesn't believe me and mutters 'chicken shit' under her breath. Her Ron Weasley poster has a date with the shredder.

Sunday

I'm making soup for brunch when Bella phones. We have to do the weekly measurements for the biology project. I don't think the snapdragons have grown any and would fudge the numbers under other circumstances, but Bella wants to come over, and I'm not about to say no to that. "I'm on my way," she says before hanging up. Shit. I hang up and I dash upstairs to shower and pretend that I didn't sleep in till eleven-o-clock. The biology work takes exactly twenty minutes to complete. 62

"I brought something for you," Bella says as we pack up our books. She sees my eager look before I can moderate my reaction and teases me, "No, it isn't food." "Why the hell not?" "Because I have better things to do with my day than cook for an asshole like you and then watch you stuff your face." "You feminist," I say with affected disgust. Bella crams her biology books back into her backpack and then opens the foremost pocket. "This is what I brought." She takes out a scrapbook with a yellow cover and sunflower stickers on the corners. The date on the front is from three years ago. "I wanted to show you this, since we talk about her so much." She opens the book and shows me photos mounted on the black pages. The first one is sepia toned. It's a portrait of a young woman with Bella's chin and that tempting look in her eye. "Her name was Elsie," Bella says. "This was taken just before she got married. She was only eighteen. Eighteen. I can't get over that." I've never lost anyone dear to me. I don't know how to respond to her stories or how to empathize with her situation. I study the studio portrait and nod. "You must really miss her." Bella's grandma looks like the kind of woman people can't help but notice ­ kind of like Bella herself. Bella smiles at the picture. "I miss talking to her. She made me swear I wouldn't mourn her." She flips the page and shows me photos taken much later, when Elsie had long braids wrapped around her head and Bella was just a little kid. In subsequent photos, Elsie's braids are gone. She's bald and pale with dark circles under her eyes, but that spark is still in them. She's still trying to tempt people to her, old and sick as she is. "What was she like?" "Fiery," Bella says with a smile. "My mom is a lot like her, but Renee is more scatterbrained. Grandma was sort of disappointed that I was born middle-aged. When she got sick she sort of got determined to make me live a little more ­ she thought wildness was healthy." Bella sighs with pleasurable reminiscence. "We had such great talks, that last year." She looks at me sideways with a smile like Elsie's. "You know," she says, "she told me a lot about her teen years and stuff. We talked about love and money and sex, and how it's so hard to have all three in balance." Bella takes my hand almost unconsciously and strokes the back of my palm with her thumb. "She told me to sleep around," Bella says with a laugh. "She told me to figure out what I want. She thought that marriage was over-rated ­ and she was married for forty years. But those were different times. She didn't get to be sexually adventurous until she was a widow." "You talked about all this with your grandma?" "Yeah. It was nice. There was nothing that was off limits. You know how when you're fourteen, you think of yourself as grown up and it's irritating how everyone still talks to you like you're a kid? She made me feel like I was grown up and worthy of her confidence." She flips the page and shows me another old sepia photo. This one is of a young man, standing by a fence and smiling nervously. "Is that your granddad?" "No. That was the guy she had the best sex of her life with ­ when she was a virgin." Bella winks at me. "If she was still a virgin then it isn't sex." "It's a little more complex than that. To the day she died he remained her best lover ­ and they only hooked up once, and didn't do what we think of as 'sex.' He was her next door neighbor." "So if he was such a good lay why didn't she marry him?" 63

"He died. Korea." Bella shrugs at this scanty knowledge. "She saved all the letters they exchanged while he was on tour." "Do you have those too?" Bella nods. "She left me all kinds of stuff like that. I haven't worked up the guts to read them yet." We go through the rest of Elsie's pictures. Bella is just a little girl in some. She was a pretty cute kid. In the course of our perusal Bella informs me that I'm the only friend to whom she's ever shown this book. This is an extremely personal offering she's making. Elsie was undoubtedly important to her life, and she trusts me enough to expose the happiest moments of her life and the subject of her deepest grief. And after last night, I can hardly argue that she isn't my closest friend. I've told her things I haven't even told Alice or Mom. "It's nice that you have such good memories of her." Bella smiles at the photos, but it's a shaky expression that hints at some greater underlying emotion. "Take the good with the bad, I guess." There's plenty she's not saying. Normally I wouldn't hold it against her, because she lets me have my secrets and fair is fair. But this ­ this is going to come back to haunt me. I know it. Bella never gives a straight answer if she can help it.

64

8. March 9 to 15

Sunday

I'm just putting away the breakfast dishes when I hear the front door open and Jake strolls in. The benefit of being like family: he makes himself right at home. "You look good." I look down at myself. He's joking. I'm wearing clothes that I can get dirty in: torn jeans and the plaid button-down that Mom used to wear during her stint as an amateur painter. "Er, thanks. You too. You grew again." Every time I see this kid he's an inch or five taller than the time before. Jake smiles, but his cheeks go a little pink. I wish I had skin like his that didn't blush so easily. I used to go red a lot, but now I give a fuck about what people think less often than I did. But when I do go red ­ I put lobsters to shame. "You ready to go?" "Yes." I lock up the house and we get into Jake's Rabbit. He unquestioningly takes my hand as we drive away, headed back to La Push. He wouldn't let me meet him there. He insisted on surprising me, and told me to wear old clothes. "So where are we going?" "Disneyland." I swat his shoulder and he laughs at me. "Okay, fine, we're not going to the happiest place on earth ­ but it's still a pretty sweet spot." "You're not going to tell me anything, are you?" "Nope." He pops the 'p' and flashes a cheesy grin at me. Jake takes the road that will eventually lead down to the beach at La Push, but then makes a right onto an unpaved road that looks more like a driveway. The spruce trees encroach on it from all sides, brushing against the car doors. "I usually come here by bike," Jake says. When the path gets too narrow to drive we leave the car and start walking. I can hear the ocean not far off. "No one knows about this place, okay? It's our secret." "Not even Quil and Embry?" "This path," he gestures to the worn track under our feet, "goes to a higher point that people like to cliff-dive from. But if we step off the path..." He takes my hand and pulls me into the trees. We both have to walk bent-double to pass under the lowest branches. Little flecks of light are all that make it through the trees, and the space we pass through is dark and damp and drenched with the fecund aroma of Spring. Jake smells like that sometimes, under the scent of motor oil. "How often do you come here?" "Whenever." He's dodging, but it's not worth it to push. When we step out of the trees, we're on a sloping ridge of rock that breaks away into a pebble beach. "Over here." Jake pulls me farther along the shore, across a dry creek bed ­ it must be low tide ­ and over the lip of the ridge. "What do you think?" We're standing in a small inlet, sheltered by smooth rocks as tall as Jake. Big, water-rounded boulders are exposed by the low tide, and in between them puddles litter the bottom of the inlet, teeming with ocean life. The entrance to the inlet is so narrow that only the smallest of waves make 65

their way inside. It's so peaceful here, rich in color and without the obtrusive sounds of ocean or forest. "It's beautiful, Jake." So many people don't share pleasant secrets, because who would think much of repeating happy information? It takes a great deal of trust to share a spot like this and count on it remaining private. Jake takes me around to the little pools, holding my hand to steady me over the slippery rocks. Little colonies of life flourish in the puddles, including a few trapped minnows. We dip our feet in one and the fish nose curiously at our toes. There's something quietly thrilling about the fact that only Jake and I know about this place. Knowing he wanted to show it to me makes me love this friendship even more ­ trusted friends come so few and far between. When the water gets too cold we put our shoes back on and keep exploring. Jake puts his hands on my waist and lifts me up to sit on one of the high round rocks. "You can see all the way to the cliff." He points it out over the top of our sheltered little spot. "How often do you really come here?" Jake shrugs. I'm making him uncomfortable. "I'd come here every day in warm weather." Jake chuckles. "That's about, what? Three days a year?" "I'll take you to Arizona some time. You'll fall in love with the sun, too." "I'd like that." Jake hops up next to me on the rock. It's so peaceful here, and I'm happy having this time with Jake. But one thought keeps intruding, unbidden: I'd like to bring Edward here. He could use a little peace and beauty in his life ­ but not here. This is an unadulterated spot, just for Jake and I. Edward wouldn't appreciate it properly, anyway. When Jake drives me home the first thing I do is call Edward. There are very few things that pick him up the way Jake picked me up today, in my limited acquaintance with him. But I have an idea. Edward appreciates sacredness and secrets, so I grab the yellow photo album off my shelf and dial.

Monday

After two wipeouts and a few small trips in gym class, Coach Clapp still isn't letting me hang back, occupational hazard that I am. He makes me come to the front of the badminton court and actually play. The sadistic server on the other team sends the birdie directly at me. In one big uncoordinated motion, I manage to catch my racquet on the net and slap myself in the face with it. When I bend down to pick up my racquet amid laughter, blood drips on the floor, and I realize I hit my nose harder than I thought. Coach Clapp finally excuses me from gym class. I go to the nurse's office to clean up and get an icepack. She takes one look at me, bloodied and in gym attire, and asks me if I've hit just my nose, or my head in general. "Just my nose." I don't think that even I could manage to get a concussion from a badminton racquet ­ but it's better not to tempt the Fates. The nurse gives me a wet towel for my neck, a box of Kleenex and an icepack, and sits me down in a chair by the sink. When she leaves to note this accident in the main office's records, the white screen that divides the cot from the rest of the room moves. "What the hell did you do?" Edward asks dryly. I can see the top half of his head in the narrow gap between the wall and the curtain edge. If his lids were any heavier, they'd be made of concrete. "My racquet bit me." Edward looks at me like I'm a complete idiot. "Feeling sick?" "More tired than sick," he says. "Are you gonna be okay?" 66

"It's just a nosebleed." "Do you need any help? She'll be gone awhile." He nods in the direction of the office door, where the nurse is. "I'm okay." Edward still gets up and comes around to my side of the divider. He moves slowly, like a man exhausted, and he's in socked feet. He takes the plastic chair next to mine and adjusts the cool cloth on the back of my neck. "Did you even go to English today?" "No. I barely made it through Biology." I stand over the sink and try removing the wad of tissues from under my nose. It's still bleeding pretty badly. I replace the Kleenex and rinse the sink where I bled on it. Edward is smirking at me. "Do you get nosebleeds a lot?" "Have you noticed how accident-prone I am?" He chuckles tiredly at that. "I used to get nosebleeds so bad I'd have to go to the ER." "Before or after you got sick?" "After, dummy." "So if I were to punch you right now, would you bleed to death?" I put on a tone of fake hopefulness. "Nah, I'd survive just to spite you." He leans his shoulder against the sink, slouching like he has a bad hangover. "As soon as I can stand upright I'll help you back to the cot." I test my nose again. Still bleeding. I'm stuck bent over the sink for a few more minutes. "I don't need your help." "You look exhausted. You should be in bed." "But I want to be here," he says simply. "I think you need it." He takes a Kleenex and catches a drip of blood as it runs past my handful of tissue, over my upper lip. "I guess you do owe me." He smiles sadly. "That I do, Swan."

Tuesday

I turn in mine and Edward's progress report for our plant project. Edward is absent today, and it doesn't surprise me. He looked like hell yesterday. It's going to be a long, lonely period without my smartass lab partner, but at least I can get some work done. Then Mr. Banner announces that we're going to be moving on to the mammalian biology unit. He hands out the syllabus for the next three weeks, and one sickening word jumps out at me: dissection. Oh fuck it all to hell. I missed my tenth grade dissection of a frog because I passed out at the step where we had to pin its limbs to the tray. Next to the dissection part of the syllabus, Mr. Banner has written fetal pig in parentheses. I can already picture how this is going to go: the smell of formaldehyde will make Edward lose his lunch, and I'll pass out from having to cut open and diagram a pig fetus. Edward calls me after school to "find out what he missed." I didn't think he was that dedicated a student. But it would be mean to call bullshit on him, so I tell him about the pig dissection. "Aw, fuck," he groans. "I'd suggest investing in a gas mask to block out the smell. I'm looking into a helmet for when I 67

pass out." "You're not going to pass out," he scoffs. I tell him about the frog in tenth grade and he laughs at me. "Okay, maybe you will." I end the call when Charlie gets home, and start to prepare dinner. He casually informs me that he's invited the Blacks over tonight, so I double the portions. And on second thought, I triple them ­ we're talking about Jake, after all. Billy and Jake arrive just as I'm putting the chicken in the oven to bake. If I time this right, the meal should be ready at halftime. "Why the long face?" Jake asks me as I clean up the chicken packaging. He pokes the corner of my mouth, trying to turn it up into a lopsided smile. That goof. "I have to dissect a pig in biology." "Cool!" "I hate you." He offers to show me how to butcher hunting kills, so I'll be a little bit desensitized to the gore by the time I have to cut open a baby pig. I decline and he tells me I look green. "Meat is meat. You like pork, don't you?" Thank God I didn't decide to make pork chops tonight.

Wednesday

Never has the meat section of a supermarket been such a dilemma. It's cheaper to buy a whole turkey to cook this Easter weekend, but taking out the neck and gizzard, etc., would remind me of my impending pig project. But the pre-gutted, pre-prepared, factory-packaged turkeys always turn out so dry. Maybe I can recruit Jake to help cook, and get him to gut the bird. He might hold this over me for a while, though. I decide I can live with that, and choose a turkey fresh from the farm. Thankfully it's frozen solid from the butcher, not squishy like a dead animal. Apart from cooking, Easter Sunday is going to be a pretty quiet day. Charlie is Lutheran because his parents were, but he hasn't practiced for as far back as I remember. In the Swan house, Easter is four days off work to watch football and eat turkey. It's more low-key than Easters with my Mom ­ Grandma used to get plastered and take her teeth out and prank-call the pizza place. And don't even get me started on Christmases with her. On the fourth of July she used to smoke weed on the front porch. I didn't really understand the significance of her yearly ritual ­ and she only smoked pot on that one day ­ until she told me about her neighbor that died in the army. Breaking the law was her one-fingered salute to the nation that had killed him. As I pull up to the checkout counter I wonder what her dealer must have thought of a little old lady, come once a year to buy weed. I bet he thought she was fucking with him. "Hey Bella," Tyler Crowley greets me at the checkout counter. He's a friend of Mike's and we run in similar circles, but I don't know him very well. He asks me if I'm cooking for a big crowd as he rings up the turkey. "Not so big, no. Just big appetites." "Family in town?" "Yeah." The Blacks are family. Tyler says, "You're such a healthy girl," as he checks and bags all the fruit and vegetables on the conveyor. He says it sweetly, like a responsible diet is adorable. "Are you hanging out with Jessica and the usual crowd this weekend?" 68

"Maybe. I have no definite plans." "It would be cool if you did." He asks me if I'll be paying with cash or credit. The receipt printer chugs out the slip of paper very slowly. "You're into group things, aren't you?" "Uh, yeah?" What the fuck is that supposed to mean? "You should have come to the spring dance. We all went as a group, anyway." "Oh." I drop my bags back in the cart as quickly as I can without being rude. I shouldn't even give him the opportunity to start this conversation, because it's too tempting to be scathing in return. I do not dance. Ever. "Are you going to prom?" "Prom is ages away." There. Distant, but not rude. Distract him until he chooses someone else, someone who will say yes and be happy to go. "Yeah, I guess we've got some time." He smiles and winks at me. The fuck? "Later, Bella." I can't help but look back over my shoulder as I leave. Tyler waves. By the time I go to bed at night I'm still thinking about what a fucking retard that kid is.

Thursday

Edward is in an especially bad mood today. He picks a fight with Jessica at lunch over Harry Potter, for fuck's sake. They can't agree on who it was that played Dumbledore in the first two films. What kind of dork is he that he knows that? Jessica is getting pissed, which means she'll soon get catty. I know Edward's moods well enough to know that he won't take that in stride. "Come on." I nudge Edward's shoulder. "Let's go for a walk. You two can settle this later." He seethes quietly all the way out of the cafeteria. I ask him who pissed on his parade and he tells me to fuck off. "You're so moody." "I am not." "Well then change your tampon or something, God..." "Shut up." "Fine, you're not moody. You're tense as shit." "I am n -" He cuts himself off with a lurch and brings a hand up to his mouth. He shuts his eyes and swallows with great difficulty. Jesus, he's so worked up he's making himself sick. "Are you okay?" He cautiously lowers his hand. "I'm fine." "Did you eat too much?" "I said I'm fine." "Easy." I don't want him to work himself up again if he's going to lose his lunch over it. "Don't tell me what to do." "Fine, puke your guts out." "Fuck you." He shoves my shoulder. Not very hard, just enough to make me take a step back. "You think -" He cuts himself off again. One hand goes to his mouth and the other around his middle, and he bolts. Luckily we're not more than ten feet from the boys' washroom. "Shit." I dig through my pockets for mints. I have a couple for him. I should stock up before biology. I think Edward is going to be in there for a while, so I go back to the cafeteria and buy a bottle of water. He'll need that too. When I pass the table Jessica coldly asks where Edward is, and I tell her not 69

to worry her pretty little head about it and I'm sure she was right about whatever actor played Dumbledore. When I get back to the hall where I last saw Edward, he's nowhere in sight. An ear to the bathroom door quickly solves the mystery of his location. I sit down on the floor with my back against the wall and wait. I'll have to make Edward's excuses to Mr. Banner if he doesn't feel better soon. The bell is going to ring in less than five minutes. When he does come out, he does so like he's trying not to be seen. Then he notices me on the floor and stops. "Were you out here the whole time?" I pass him the bottle of water, neglect to answer, and get off the floor. I drop a couple of mints in his shirt pocket and suggest he cut class to go to the nurse's office. "Thanks." "I gotta to go. I'm gonna be late." I step around him and he grabs my wrist. His hands are sweaty. "Wait. I'm sorry." "Yeah, great, forgiven." I am so going to be late. "No." He tugs me back when I try to pull away. He's embarrassed, and talks so lowly that I have no choice but to lean in to hear him. He smells like vomit and sandalwood. "I'm really sorry. You were trying to be nice. I shouldn't have said that shit." "Edward ­ forgiven, okay?" I pat his flushed cheek. "Try to chill the fuck out, eh?" I slip out of his grasp and jog back to my locker. I'll have to sprint to the biology lab, now. Edward misses biology, and I assume he either crashed in the nurse's office or went home early to recover there. There is nothing to suggest otherwise until after school, when I go out to my truck and find a damp sheet of lined paper tucked under my windshield wiper. I grab it and get into my truck. The rain is really starting to come down. I recognize Edward's handwriting, even smudged by rain. Happy Easter, Swan.

Friday

I sleep in to get the long weekend started off right. I follow that up with a long, thorough shower and one of my favorite books over a bowl of Fruit Loops. I plan to do absolutely nothing remotely resembling work today. You have to be dedicated like that to appreciate long weekends. Jessica calls around noon with plans to go to the beach ­ always open, even on holidays. She's putting together a group of all the people from school for a picnic and Angela is trying to get enough people together to hike the tidal pools. So I trade my sweats for clothes and get in my truck. I drive to the Black house so much that by habit I miss the turn off to the beach and end up on their street. So I invited Jake along ­ he heard the truck coming from five doors down. He smells like motor oil and his hair could use a comb. I run a hand through it while he fiddles with the tuner on my radio. "Who's gonna be there?" "Everyone, I guess. Do you want to bring Quil and Embry too?" "Nah. You're good company." He smiles at me and cranks the volume. I love long weekends with my best friend. The gathering on the beach involves a lot of junk food. I brought apples. Those who feel like 70

surfing have brought boards and wetsuits. I look around at the familiar faces of the lunchtime crowd and see that Jess hasn't invited Edward. Maybe she's still sore about the fight he picked yesterday. Or maybe he's just too weird for this company. He would be cold out here, anyway. It's a sunny Good Friday, but the wind off the ocean cuts across the beach up to the tree line. If I stand right in front of Eric, I can't even hear him playing guitar, the wind is so strong. The surfers are in their glory. Angela initiates her hike around the tidal pools. I haven't been here in years ­ since Charlie took me as a little kid. It's much less embarrassing to fall in when you're only four. Jake asks me if I'm likely to remain upright this time. "Oh shut it," I mutter. He winks at me. "I'll catch you." Jake is strong, but he's so gangly that I'd probably pull him down too if I fell. I blunder through the hike with only a few small missteps that get my boots wet ­ Jake tries very, very hard not to laugh - until I trip on an exposed root and topple into a shallow pool. Jake grabs my arm to keep me from spilling over completely, but not before Mike leans in to do the same. He loses his footing on the roots and goes crashing down in front of me. A little tidal wave of muddy water splashes up my front, but that's nothing compared to how filthy he is. Ben can't contain a hysterical little giggle and Angela elbows him for it. "Sorry." Mike is soaked, covered in mud, and looks very much like he wants to punch me. "Are you ok?" he asks stiffly. "Yeah. Jake caught me." The upside to being cold and wet and embarrassed is that he'll probably never hit on me again. As I drive home reeking of saltwater, still damp and slightly muddy, I chant a little prayer in my head that Edward not be there when I get home. This is the time of year for miracles, right? Mercifully, both Edward and Charlie aren't at my house when I pull up. There's no one but my school friends to make fun of me for coming home such a mess. Clumsiness is infinitely worse when the evidence isn't easily hidden. I check the answering machine before I get into the shower. Nothing from Charlie, who is at work, and nothing from Edward either.

Saturday

I set up my homework at the kitchen table, even though I know it will be interrupted. I even propped the front door open, and not just to let air in through the screen. Maybe Edward will take the hint and just welcome himself in. Who knows? He's weird about boundaries. They move according to his moods, and he's quite a moody bastard. By one-o-clock I've finished my homework and move on to the advanced prep work for tomorrow's dinner. I mix the stuffing in advance and set peeled potatoes in water. The turkey is already thawing in the fridge. It's an eighteen-pounder, but with the Blacks coming to share dinner, there likely won't be any leftovers. Jake could probably polish off that bird alone, the way he eats these days. By the time I'm done with Easter dinner it's time to start the real dinner. It's almost five-o-clock and I haven't seen or heard from Edward, which is pretty weird for a Saturday. Or maybe not ­ it's a holiday weekend, after all. Maybe he has family obligations. Maybe he's in Seattle to see extended family. It's ten-o-clock at night, past the hour for polite phone calls, when I can't stand any more circular speculation about Edward. He could be with family, yes, but then he could also be really sick. He could 71

be pulling some moody cold-shoulder shit because I didn't take his side in that stupid argument with Jessica on Thursday. I take the phone and curl up on the bed with it, half-expecting to get the answering machine ­ proof that the Cullens are out of town. Esme answers the call with a polite but muted 'hello.' I apologize for calling at such a late hour and she ignores me to divine the reason for my call: "You want to talk to Edward." "I was just wondering how he's doing. I haven't heard from him in a few days." "I'll see if he's still awake," she says. "Thank you." "I'm glad you called, Bella," she says quietly. "He's had quite a day." I ask her what she means, but she won't elaborate. "Let him tell you."

72

9. March 13 to 21

Thursday

"Don't gnaw the whole thing off," Emmett tells me as he looks over to change lanes. I stop biting my thumbnail and slouch down in the passenger seat, sulking a little. It's Easter weekend, and Emmett and I are driving up to Seattle. Rosalie's family isn't religious and Tanya is Jewish, so Easter is just a four day weekend for them ­ and a great opportunity to visit. The plan is to drive up tonight, spend the night at the Hale house, and then drive back to Forks the morning of Good Friday with Rosalie and Tanya. I'm a little nervous. I haven't seen Tanya since last June, except for in pictures. A year can really change people. I know I don't even look like the same person. She used to have a crush on me, back in tenth grade. It was really sweet, and I tried to like her back, but it just wasn't there, so we went back to being friends. Or at least I did, and she struggled to keep her desires under wraps. She took it harder than any of my other friends when I moved away. She took it the hardest when I told her about my diagnosis a month later. Tanya used to send me cards and stuff when I was in the hospital, and then she saw a photo of what cancer had done to me and she took a giant leap back like I was a leper. I think that photo killed whatever romantic feeling she had towards me. Who could love this? Who would want this? "Dude," Emmett scolds me. I take my thumbnail out of my mouth. It's an unconscious nervous habit. "What's the matter? You nervous?" "No." "It's been awhile since you've seen her, hasn't it?" "Yeah." Emmett reaches over and rubs my head roughly. "Trying to soften the shock?" he says. My toque is sort of rust-colored today. It's the first one Alice made me. She chose this yarn because it's similar to my hair color. And yes ­ I'm wearing it to make myself look more like the Edward that Tanya used to know. "It's just a hat." "You're fucking tense, bro." "Just restless." We've only been driving for an hour. "If you don't want to see her we can cancel." He gestures to the cell phone plugged into the dashboard charger. "Of course I want to see her." It was Mom's idea that I invite her, after Emmett asked to invite Rosalie. It was sort of a last minute thing. Rosalie and her boyfriend are on the rocks (when aren't they?) and she was looking for a chance to get out of town. Emmett and I stop halfway to Seattle to fuel up. He goes into the convenience store while I fill the tank and comes back with about five different kinds of stomach-punishing junk food. None of it will be left by the time we get to Rosalie's house. I'm not looking forward to a night at the Hale house, but it's the best stall I have to delay seeing Tanya. Odds are, my time at the Hale house will be tense or boring. Emmett will do the best friend thing and comfort Rosalie about her stupid boyfriend, nurturing her self-absorption or distracting her as only Emmett can, and I'll be left to hang out with her parents or occupy myself. We're not picking Tanya up until tomorrow morning. She can still cancel our plans. I almost expect her to. 73

I get a glance from Rosalie when we get to the house, before she monopolizes my brother. Mr. and Mrs. Hale are polite but distant. They don't know what to make of me, what to say or to offer in the way of hospitality. These are people who value perfection, which means that in their eyes, I'm practically worthless. "Are you feeling any better?" Mr. Hale says. "Every day." Fucking lie. We're still making awkward conversation when Rosalie and Emmett come down to the kitchen in search of food. Rosalie pays us no mind, still talking ­ nay, bitching ­ about her boyfriend. "What's your boyfriend's name again?" I ask. I already know his name; I'm just trying to piss her off by alluding to her unimportance. "It's Royce," she says coldly. She's offended that I interrupted her running stream of blah blah blah. "Is his sister named Mercedes?" She gives me a withering look. "Edward." "Maybe a brother named Bentley?" Mr. Hale thinks my joke is funny. Rosalie turns her narrowed eyes on him instead of me for having the nerve to chortle. Who names a kid Royce, anyway? Rich people with fatter egos than wallets, that's who. Figures Rosalie would go for a guy like that ­ and still not be satisfied. The Hales give Emmett and I the queen-sized guest bed to share. Emmett offers to take the couch but Mrs. Hale waves away his "gallantry" and insists that the bed is big enough for two. I bet she thinks he'll drool on her nice throw cushions if she lets him have the couch. The Hales are weird about their possessions ­ their house looks like a museum or a magazine photo; not quite lived in, somewhat staged, and emotionally void. "Sorry," Emmett says as we turn down the bed. We use the extra pillows to create a buffer zone between us. Emmett is a wild sleeper. He flails and kicks and punches and I can't afford to be his punching bag right now. Despite the pillows, he wakes me with three separate kicks throughout the night, and in the morning I wake up with a bruise the size of a softball on my thigh. I should have just smothered him with a pillow and saved myself the trouble.

Friday

Around nine we leave the bougie neighborhood the Hales reside in for the more unassuming suburb that Tanya calls home. I'm sweating by the time Emmett pulls onto her street. I've been waiting for her to call and bail, but the only response to my text that we were on our way was a smiley face. What the fuck does that mean? Stupid noncommittal emoticons. Emmett parks along the curb in front of her house and I get out of the car. Emmett joins me, which is a surprise but a nice gesture nonetheless. I'm nervous as hell. "You look sick, bro." For a second I wonder if my "sickness" is enough to get away with waiting in the car for Tanya, without having to go inside and see her parents. But that would be terribly rude. "Come on." Emmett puts a hand on my shoulder and fairly pushes me forward, up the front walk and onto the low porch. He rings the bell while I panic inside like a five-year-old girl. "Relax, it's Tanya, not the Inquisition," he whispers. "You did your history homework." The ridiculous thought makes me smile. "All one-third of it," he says proudly. 74

Tanya answers the door with a giddy smile on her face. "Hi guys." She steps aside and holds the door open for us. Emmett and I walk in amid an exchange of hellos, and I notice Tanya giving me the once-over. She seems to be having trouble holding her smile. "Still cheerleading?" Emmett asks. "I made captain." "Congratulations." They exchange a friendly one-armed hug. Tanya looks at me like she isn't sure if she's obligated to touch me now, too. A year ago she had no problem sticking her tongue down my throat and inviting me to grope her. I make it easy for her, looking the other way and asking politely if her parents are home. "Mom's out, but my dad is home." Tanya goes upstairs to get her overnight bag while Emmett and I make polite conversation with her father. It's easier for Emmett ­ they talk sports. Tanya's dad does that thing that everybody does these days ­ looks away from me when he's speaking because it's too fucking awkward. "Ready to go?" Tanya says with forced cheerfulness. I bet she's regretting this already. On the way to the car she studies me some more, and says, "You're limping," with an accusatory tone. "Emmett kicked me." "And for the fifth time ­ it was an accident!" The drive back to Forks is filled with friendly but unsubstantial conversation. Rose and Emmett have their talk in the front seat, Tanya and I have ours in the back, and occasionally the subjects cross to include everyone. For the most part, Rosalie isn't interested in talking to Tanya or me. She dislikes me for a variety of reasons, and disdains Tanya on principle. I've heard Tanya referred to as "that cheerleader" when she isn't around. Rosalie considers herself so beautiful that she doesn't have to "put herself on display like that," to use her phrase. "Are you really okay?" Tanya asks lowly as we drive through Port Angeles. "Yeah. I'm getting better." "Ask him how much he weighs now," Emmett says with a stupid grin. I kick the back of his seat and Tanya looks out the window uncomfortably. He got that idea from Mom, who has been bragging to anyone who will listen about how I've been gaining pounds by eating soup. "Thanks," I tell him. "If I guess right, will you tell me?" Rosalie says with a mean smirk. "Fuck off, Barbie." "Show her how they jack you into the Matrix," Emmett says. I kick his seat again. When we arrive at the house, Mom meets us at the car and gathers Tanya into a hug of welcome as soon as the door opens. Emmett unlocks the trunk to get Tanya and Rosalie's bags, and I corner him to demand what the fuck he was trying to do to me back there. "You two were so painfully awkward," he says with a nod in Tanya's direction. "Just talk about it and demystify the whole thing before it wrecks your weekend." When Emmett sounds wise, you know you're fucked. Alice accosts Tanya in the foyer with giggly demands for updates on all the friends she left back in Seattle when we moved. Tanya obliges as best she can, and we somehow end up on the couch watching Harry Potter with Alice. She's trying to hide her dorkiness, but every so often I catch her mouthing the dialogue out of the corner of my eye. In the kitchen, Mom is trying to cook a special meal in honor of our guests. A jar of Bella's homemade soup for me is on to boil, and Mom is making an attempt at kosher food for Tanya. Her 75

parents are strict about stuff like that. They make her do all sorts of volunteer work at her synagogue or she doesn't get to stay in cheerleading. When the kosher meal is ready, I'm glad I don't have to eat it. Mom isn't a great cook when it comes to recipes she's done a million times, never mind new ones. She's too scatterbrained and has low standards about food: as long as it's edible is her philosophy. I smugly eat my soup while the others force their way through dinner. Alice wipes her mouth a lot and crumples at least a dozen napkins. I wonder if she swallowed anything at all. The food is so bad that not even Rosalie tries to be a kiss-ass by complimenting it, and when everyone quits trying to choke it down Alice offers to make milkshakes. "How's your soup?" Tanya asks as Alice sets up the blender. I'm practically licking the bowl ­ it's that good and I want to rub it in. "It's ok." "His friend makes it for him," Dad chimes in. "She's a very fine cook." "I guess you eat it a lot," Tanya says like she's trying to joke. I can't see what's funny about that exactly, but I smile anyway. "It's all he can eat," Rosalie interjects, and I'm not smiling anymore. She must be fondly remembering my first round of chemo, when she was in town and I almost threw up in her car. I still regret asking her to pull over. I should have barfed on that bitch's nice leather seats. "He's a sucker for milkshakes, too," Alice says. "You're going to love these, Tanya. Do you want raspberry or peach?" For all she's annoying, my little sister knows how to pleasantly divert an uncomfortable conversation. I don't even mind that I owe her one now.

Saturday

Dad has the day off, and he proposes a daytrip to Cape Flattery on the Makah reservation. It's one of Emmett's favorite places to hike, but I've never been. We head out after breakfast, Mom and Dad in the Volvo, and the five kids in the Jeep. Alice claims the middle seat as the littlest person, but sandwiched between me and Tanya, she seems like a protective placeholder; like she doesn't want anyone getting too close to me. The drive is a little over an hour, and when we get there Emmett parks in the gravel lot near the trailhead. Cape Flattery Trail is a wide dirt path with cedar boardwalk in places for ease of hiking, and has several observation perches along the coast. The brochure advertises views of sea caves and marine wildlife and Tatoosh Island. "Only three quarters of a mile to the first observation deck," Alice notes aloud as we pass the trail map by the entrance. Her pink-gloved hand slips into mine and squeezes. Three quarters of a mile is longer than I've walked in a while. I'm not going to fail at this, though, especially in front of Tanya. I don't even want to contemplate how embarrassing that would be. She hasn't looked at me all day, except from under her lashes when she thinks I'm not looking. I'm making her uncomfortable just by the way I look and my silence on the subject, but I don't know how to initiate a conversation of that sort and she hasn't done so either. Lucky for me, Alice is good at chatter, and she fills the silence along the trail. She stops to take photos a lot, and I take each opportunity to rest on a rock or fallen log or something. "Are we moving too fast?" Dad asks. "Not at all." My joints are going to fucking hurt tonight. It's almost noon when we get to the first observation point. It took us twice as long to walk the first 76

leg of the trail as it usually takes Emmett when he comes here alone. Blame it on Alice's photo taking and Mom's scatterbrained bird watching and my growing fatigue. We stop at the observation point for a picnic lunch ­ no kosher food this time; Mom's given up already. Tanya sticks to vegetables and dip and I eat a Jell-O. Emmett eats four sandwiches and Alice loses half of hers to a hungry seagull. "The nerve of that bird!" she says with a pout. The walk back to the cars is even slower than our walk to the observation point. Tanya hangs back with me, acting like my slow pace is normal, and we talk comfortably for the first time in awhile. She's stressing over what to do this summer. Her dad wants her to go to Torah camp again, but she wants to stay in Seattle and get a job ­ and be near her boyfriend. "Aren't you old enough to be a counselor at that camp now?" Tanya wrinkles her nose. "Probably. But it's in New York. I don't want to be all the way across the country again." Her parents have signed her up for camp without asking her opinion on the matter for eight years running. "Maybe your boyfriend could mysteriously end up at the same camp." "He isn't Jewish." That makes me laugh. "What does your dad think of that?" "He doesn't know." This guy is doomed. The two weeks that Tanya and I tried to date last year were punctuated by no less than five attempts by her parents to set her up with nice Jewish boys, hoping to divert her interest away from the likes of me. "Let me know when your dad finds out. I'll swing by for the funeral." I laugh but Tanya gasps and looks at me like I've said something blasphemous. "What?" "Nothing." She buries her hands in her sweater pockets and picks up her pace a little. You idiot. She spent half of last year fearfully waiting for a funeral notice ­ mine. Tanya takes the middle seat on the way home. She smells different, now. She must have changed her shampoo or started wearing perfume or something; the damp air and light sweat make her scent headier in the car. I have a headache building, so I lean my head back and close my eyes. After about twenty minutes my pose is mistaken for sleep and they start to whisper about me. Tanya asks Alice if I'm really looking better. She has no personal experience to draw a comparison. "Yeah, he does," Alice whispers back. "The sores have healed, and his stomach isn't upset as much anymore. He's got color again. He used to be so pale he looked green." She paints a nice picture, doesn't she? Whatever; it's the truth. "He's so thin." "He's gained weight," Emmett chimes in. "I heard you were his donor," Tanya says to Alice. "Yeah." "Do you have a scar?" "I have a few." She says it with such pride, like the complications of the procedure didn't come close to killing her. "I'm doing a presentation for my drama class ­ it's a monologue about the satisfaction of being an organ and tissue donor." She never told me that... "Did he tell you he's taken up knitting?" she says innocently. That little witch knows I'm awake. "I thought it was macramé?" Rosalie interjects. "To hell with all of you," I mutter. "Except you," I say to Tanya, and crack an eyelid to give her a sideways look. She's as red as an overripe tomato; she was probably the only one who genuinely thought I was sleeping. Talk about an awkward social gaffe. 77

"Sorry." "Let's play the license plate game," Alice says, and grabs Tanya's hand excitedly. Either she's forgotten her Ritalin again, or she is an angel. Or both. It's about an hour after dinner when Tanya works up the guts to talk to me openly about...things. She sits cross-legged on my bed like a kid sitting down for a campfire story, and doesn't protest when I take the desk chair instead of sitting with her. I prop my feet up on the edge of the bed and slouch comfortably. "Did your mom give you the email I sent you in isolation?" "Yeah, she did." "You didn't write back." "I was in isolation." "I mean after." "That was after. It seemed stupidly belated to answer." "I wouldn't have cared." "I called you." Tanya grimaces sadly. "You could barely talk, your voice was so hoarse." "I still had sores." Tanya scoots forward on the bed until she's sitting right on the edge, leaning in toward me. "Can I see you without your hat?" "Why?" Tanya shrugs. "I'm curious." Her tone makes it sound like an apology. "You said the photo I sent you was weird, and that was when I still had some hair." "I didn't say it was weird. I said it made me feel weird." "Weird how?" "I dunno." She shrugs and looks away uncomfortably. "Guilty, maybe? Freaked out? Like all of a sudden it was real and you were seriously sick?" "Why do you want to see more of that?" It was probably to everyone's benefit that I didn't receive treatment in Seattle; friends would have felt obligated to visit me, and that would have been torture for us all. "Because it is real." I can't argue with that. I've lived it. So I take off my hat. Tanya stares. She stands up and touches my head. She moves the skin around under the pads of her fingers, like she's never seen human flesh before. "Do you think your hair will grow back the same color? I've heard it changes sometimes, after chemo." "I dunno." She runs a finger over the ridge of bone where my eyebrow used to be. "Are you totally hairless?" "Almost." Tanya pushes up my sleeve without asking permission and studies my smooth forearm. "What's almost?" "I have hair here." I direct her attention to the fine hairs on the backs of my second knuckles. Those are the only ones fit for polite discussion. "Just there?" I can see she's wondering about the parts that aren't open for polite discussion. "Not just there." "What happened to your hands?" "It's a side effect of the transplant. Perfectly normal." And perfectly hideous. "Will it go away?" 78

"Eventually. Like a sunburn." But not completely. "I heard chemo feels cold going in." "Yeah, they have to keep the drugs at a certain temperature." "Does it make your arm go cold?" "I didn't take it by regular IV. I had a central line put in." There's a reason I didn't tell Tanya all this shit as it was happening. It would have freaked her out ­ as it does now when I explain what exactly a central line is. "Can I see it?" "No." I put my hat back on. "Why?" "It's private." Palming my bald scalp is one thing. Staring at the port in my boney, hairless chest is another. My ego can't take that kind of negative scrutiny. "Emmett calls it my connection to the Matrix," I offer by way of lame humor. Tanya laughs sweetly. "Come here." I grab her around the waist, teasing her like I used to, and pull her onto my lap. I twist her long strawberry hair around my hand like a rope and say "gotcha" in her ear. Tanya rolls her eyes at me. She always did. She's the kind of girl who pretends to hate attention until she can't stand to fake it anymore. "You're so immature." "And?" I chuckle. She tries to stand up and I pull her back. "Where you going?" "I'm not too heavy?" "I think you weigh fifty pounds when wet." She sticks her tongue out at me. She loves it. "I mean, I'm not hurting you, right?" A year ago she tackled me onto a couch with absolutely no mind for gentleness ­ just passionate tongue-fucking in her parents' basement. Now she's afraid to sit on my lap. "I'm not made of glass, you know." "I know, but you're so thin..." "I'm fine. Relax." I pull her back against me and slouch again. We both put our feet on the bed, nudging toes. It's a familiar pose. We were cuddle-friends even before I knew she had a crush on me, before she had a boyfriend. That's why I don't feel bad about holding another guy's girl: I was there first, technically. "I can feel it," she says quietly. "What?" "Against my shoulder." She flexes slightly in demonstration. She's talking about my central line. She can feel the tubing through our shirts. "Sorry." I let go and help her sit up. "I don't mind." Alice interrupts the moment by bursting into my room with the force of a small bomb. The door bangs back on its hinges as she launches herself onto the bed and bounces there on her knees. "Guess what? Guess what?" she squeals. "Rowling is writing an eighth Potter book?" What else could reduce Alice to the level of an overemotional four-year-old so quickly? Alice stands up and starts jumping on my bed, talking between bounces in a voice breathless with excitement. "I sent him an email about the party Mom said I could have and he said -" "Jesus Christ, Alice." "--Yeeeees!" she sings, and jumps off my bed with a flourish. "He's coming to my party. And he's not going to blow me off at the last second, either, so don't even say it, Mr. Pessimist," she says, and jabs a finger at me. Tanya laughs. 79

I can see a million ways this can go wrong. But Alice is happy, and damn it if I can stand to contemplate all the ways she could be hurt. It's not as simple to get a smile like that out of her anymore ­ at one point in time all it took was a chocolate chip cookie. Alice squeals again and skips out of my room. "I have to call Charlotte!" Tanya smiles. "She hasn't changed a bit, has she?" "Of course she has." This last year as seen plenty of change in her ­ she has boobs now (gross) and is chasing after a jock like some horny teenaged airhead (grosser). "I meant her enthusiasm," Tanya clarifies. "But you're right ­ the boobs are an improvement." "Oh shut up." Tanya finds it easier to talk when she doesn't have to look at me, so she stays on my lap for a while. We turn on the computer and creep her boyfriend's Facebook page. She shows me the photos of her winter formal ­ it looks like she had a fun time ­ and then it occurs to her to ask if I've made any new friends here. "A few." Okay, one. "Anyone interesting?" "Not really." Only a fucking riddle of a girl. "Are you lying to me?" She looks at me over her shoulder with a teasingly shrewd expression. I just chuckle and tell her of course not. "You smell different," she says suddenly. I don't know why, but I can feel my face go hot at her inconsequential comment. "Just my soap, I guess." But the soap I use is unscented, hypoallergenic shit from the pharmacy, formulated to keep my skin from peeling off in sheets and breaking out in blisters. Tanya giggles. "Remember when you were fourteen and used to practically bathe in Klix?" "Come on, that was forever ago." "You don't smell like a brand scent, now," she continues. "You smell like...I dunno." So I come right out and say it. "I smell like drugs." Tanya flinches. "They've got me on so much strong shit that my skin is soaked with it. I've got opiates in my sweat. The chemo smell was worse." Tanya is about as rigid as a statue. Mom calls up the stairs that dinner is ready, and Tanya practically runs from my room. You shouldn't have scared her like that. She needed to hear it. Gently, you asshole. How do you gently tell someone that you smell like a cancer patient? After dinner, Alice starts a game of War with three decks at the dining table. She must have blackmail on Emmett, because he and Rosalie join in instead of going off on their own. The three of them keep Tanya suitably distracted while I slip away to discreetly vomit upstairs. All I ate for dinner was soup ­ Bella's soup has never made me sick, or even queasy. Maybe the milk was bad. Everything comes back up ­ why does it always feel like I puke three times more than I eat? ­ and when the nausea passes I feel hungry again. Ravenous. I wash up, brush my teeth to hide the smell of vomit, and go downstairs to seek out a cup of yogurt. "Help Alice," Emmett says when I enter the kitchen. "She's losing, hard." Alice kicks him under the table as hard as she can, and he barely flinches. I just laugh and grab a yogurt cup before sitting down beside her. The point of this game is to gain all the cards in the decks. Each person sets down one card at a 80

time, and the person with the highest card claims all the rest. It takes a long time to play, with great ebb and flow between streaks of luck. That's if you play by the rules. It's a tradition among us kids to cheat as much as possible, and if you catch someone cheating, you get to punch them in the shoulder. "Edward's on my team," Alice says. "We're not playing in teams," Rosalie says. "Donor and recipient can be counted as a single person, then," Alice says, and sticks her tongue out at Rosalie, who sniffs in response. Alice scoots onto my knee and plays an ace. She really is getting clobbered. I make all the snatches ­ even the cheat ones ­ since her reflexes are worth shit. She takes all the punches when we get caught, though. That's my tough little Alice ­ taking the beatings she knows I can't. You've reached a new level of pathetic. And you owe her a big thank-you. Maybe I'll put Gryffindor colored M&Ms in her pancakes tomorrow. When she finally catches Emmett cheating, Alice gets up and walks around the table to give him as good a punch as her scrawny arms will deliver. She pushes back against me to move the chair, and the slight weight of her back against my front sets something off. I try to swallow to forestall the sensation, but it's no good. The yogurt is coming back up, one way or another. I practically trip over Alice in my haste to get to the sink ­ there's no way I'm making it to the bathroom. "Shit." Alice drops her cards and grabs a roll of paper towels from under the sink for me. Emmett asks if I'm okay and Rosalie sighs loudly. "Geez, Edward," she complains. Alice turns around and stamps her foot. "He didn't do it on purpose, Rose!" Her voice is beyond shrill with indignation. "Shut up, Alice." She turns to look at me with surprise, and then with hurt. She throws the rest of the paper towels down next to me. "Fine," she hisses, and storms away. She was only trying to defend you. Because a guy like you needs his shrimp of a sister to fight his battles for him. You need to apologize. You need to grow a pair. "Let's put on a movie," Emmett says, trying to divert our guests' focus. He, Rosalie and Tanya abandon the cards on the table and go to the living room. Tanya hangs back, though. "Do you need any help?" she asks as I turn on the tap to rinse the sink. "No. I'll meet you in there." So she goes. And I think she understands why it takes me an hour to show my face in the living room. I'm tired as all hell by ten, but I stay up because everyone else is still awake. Normally I would go to bed whenever my body tells me to quit, but Tanya's presence gives me social obligations as her host. She comes into my room before bed, dressed in pajama pants and a tank top, and says she's going to have bruises on her shoulders by tomorrow. "Well if you didn't cheat so much..." I tease her, but the joke falls flat. If anything, her fist is going to hurt more than her shoulders. At one point Emmett said she was "making her people proud" for how much effort she was putting into her cheats. She punched him so hard his chair actually moved, and Emmett is practically a brick wall. "Do you still feel sick?" Tanya asks. She's standing back farther than normal, holding her arms defensively around her middle. Like I'm catching. Like I might puke on her. 81

"I'm okay now. I got sick really suddenly, is all. It doesn't happen that much anymore." "It used to?" "During chemo it could happen without warning." She doesn't like my direct honesty nearly as much as Bella does. Why can't she take it? Whatever she's imagining can't be nearly as bad as going through it yourself or with a loved one, like Bella has. What a wimp. Be nice. She's still your friend too, and you have a limited supply of those. Tanya steps up to me very carefully, like she isn't sure if I'll bite. Then she reaches up and pulls my hat off. "It's less weird that way," she says. "What?" "When your hat is on I can't help picturing you with hair. It's like watching someone wear sunglasses indoors." She bites her lower lip and shrugs. "This is...you." I don't want this to be me. Tanya sets my hat aside on the dresser. We sit on the bed and talk about tomorrow's plans. Dad wants to go to church, and Tanya and Rose are free to come if they want. Easter breakfast is always a big deal, and Emmett still puts on an egg hunt for Alice (Mom and Dad won't anymore; they insist she's too old for it). We're discussing plans for an afternoon walk when Mom knocks on the door. "Can I come in?" I jump up and grab my hat before jamming it back down on my head. Tanya might like to look at me this way, but it's enough to make Mom cry. She'll lose more sleep if I upset her right before bed. Mom knocks softly on the door before poking her head in. "The phone is for you, Edward. Do you want to take it or are you too tired?" "I'll take it." I accept the cordless phone from Mom and ask Tanya to excuse me before taking it into the hall. I shut the bedroom door behind me. Mom slips away down the hall with a fond smile and a wave goodnight. "Hello?" "Hi." Bella's voice is soft and sort of dreamy, like she's about to whisper a fond secret. "Hey," I answer back. It's a relief to talk to someone who isn't weird about...well, me. "I missed you today." The words have a curiously paralyzing effect. I couldn't form a coherent sentence to save my life, but I smile from ear to ear. "You too good to hang out with me now, or something?" she teases me. "No. No, I've just had company today." I have to speak lowly for Tanya's sake. "I worried about you. It's been awhile since you've been MIA on a Saturday." "I'm sorry." It's a warming but guilty feeling, knowing that she cares enough about me to worry when I'm not around and don't call. "You were with family today?" "No. A friend from Seattle." "Did you have fun?" "She's in town all weekend." "Tsk, tsk, don't think I didn't notice that you dodged the question, Cullen." I rest my back against the wall and slide down to sit on the floor. I set my elbows on bent knees and seriously consider her question. "No, actually." "Why not?" I swallow. "I might have to answer your question with a question." "Okay." "What...um...I...?" 82

"Go ahead," she prompts me softly. I hang my head. "How can you stand to look at me?" She's silent. I hear her shift positions on the other end of the line. "That's a complicated question." "I might need to hear an actual answer." "You've got these eyes..." she trails off thoughtfully. "They suck me in." I hear the rustle of fabric near the phone. "And you've got these really nice hands. I like to watch them." My chest feels tight and my stomach has butterflies. The feeling is reminiscent of that time in fourth grade when Bette Lawrence pantsed me after gym class, even though we were alone packing up equipment and she was the only one who saw my underwear. "And sometimes when you come to class you've got Jell-O coloring on your teeth." I snort. "I look at you because I like to." "And it doesn't bother you?" "No," she whispers. For some reason, I don't doubt her. "I want to show you something. When you have time." "Alright." "Are you going to bed soon?" "Maybe. Are you?" I don't want to hang up yet, but if she's tired... "I'm in bed." I smile at the thought of her curled up in that narrow purple bed I sat on a few weeks ago. The one with the soft sheets that smells like Bella. I could live in that bed ­ provided she was in it too, of course. "Goodnight." It is good, Bella. "Sweet dreams." She hangs up first. I sit there with the phone to my ear until the deadline tone starts, and then shut it off. I get up, set the phone on the shelf, and go back to Tanya. She glances up when I enter but can't hold her gaze. "Maybe we should go to bed." "Okay," she readily agrees. She throws in a fake yawn for my benefit. I walk her down the hall to the guest room and say goodnight. I return to my bed and think about how long I have to wait before I'll see Bella again.

Sunday

Alice takes two Ritalin when she wakes up. She's going to need it. Easter breakfast is generally sugar-heavy: scones, Danishes, bacon, eggs, and muffins with jam. And then there's the egg hunt Emmett has planned. I saw him come home from the grocery store last week with two shopping bags full of chocolate eggs. I won't be the only one with a sore stomach today if he plans on hiding all that. The eggs are already hidden when we wake up in the morning. Alice finds three on her way downstairs ­ her genuine, innocent smile brightens my day tenfold ­ and tucks them away in her pajama pockets. She prowls around the house for more while Dad, Emmett and I put breakfast together. He watches her hunt and calls out "warmer, colder" to her as she crawls around, looking under the furniture for sweets. "Aw, Em!" she complains when she realizes he's hidden six eggs on top of the blades of the ceiling fan. Emmett never half-asses a game. Then she finds an egg in the sugar bowl, and four in Mom's flowerpots. She's got quite the haul by the time breakfast is served. She bounces in her seat when she sees the red and yellow M&Ms in her pancakes. 83

This is why Alice can never grow up. She brings so much sunshine to this house. If she wasn't such a little girl, she couldn't do that. "Whose idea was the M&Ms?" she says around a full mouth of pancake. Mom scolds her for it. "Mine," I say. "Will you do it for me on my birthday, too? I know you're too cheap to get me a present," she teases. She just had to remind me that she's going to be sixteen soon ­ too old for such things. But it's Alice, and I'm a complete sucker for her sweet requests, so I say yes. "But this means I'm returning your gift." "No!" "I wonder if Dollarama gives store credit..." "Edward," she complains, but she's laughing too hard to pull it off. I mess up her bed head some more and she tells me to bugger off. I get up, still chuckling, and go to the fridge to grab a cup of Jell-O. I catch Tanya looking at me like she's pleasant surprised. "What?" She shrugs and smiles. "You haven't changed a bit." The day goes by at a lazy pace. Everyone is a little bit food-drunk, except for Alice, who is pushing the need for a third Ritalin pill. Dad practically forces her to play a game on the Wii to keep her focused and burn off her sugar high. "Sorry," I say to Tanya. She smiles and shrugs. "I like it." She's an only child, and lonely a lot, I guess. I suppose I know how that feels now. Tanya is more than happy to get sucked up into the Cullen family dynamic ­ so much so that I actually have time to slip away and call Bella after lunch. It goes to voicemail. This disappoints me far more than it ought, under the circumstances. I wait all day for her to call me back, but she doesn't. I thought she had some kind of sixth sense for when I need her, like Alice does ­ she's always handing me mints for my stomach, and she called last night when I was feeling down. You don't need her right now, idiot. You just want to hear her voice.

Monday

Mom drives Rosalie and Tanya back to Seattle. Emmett would have done it, but he has the opening shift at work, and the girls are eager to be home. Tanya and I part with a gentle hug, like her little arms might break me. "Say hi to everyone for me." "I will." She waves and slides into the backseat. When she drives away I don't miss her. I hate her a little bit. She made me feel visible, but not in a good way ­ not like Bella does. She made me feel visible for all the reasons I wish I could hide. I wasn't Edward, the friend she's known since preschool; I was a set of symptoms to be watched and scrutinized. It took her three days in my company to see me as just Edward. I go back inside and shut the door behind me. "Want to play?" Alice calls as I pass the living room, holding out a Wii controller. "Not now, Al." She drops the remote and scampers after me. She throws her arms around my waist from behind and God damn it, she's heavier than I remembered. 84

"Alice." I try to walk but she keeps her feet planted, dragging along behind me. "You're such a child." "What's wrong?" She pouts. "I'm tired and I feel like shit, that's what's wrong. Now let me go." She releases me, but continues to follow me upstairs in complete violation of my personal space. "Will you lay off?" She grabs the cordless phone off the side table. "I'll call Bella." Like Bella is supposed to fix everything? "I'll do it." I reach for the phone and Alice scurries away, dialing madly. I grab the back of her shirt before she can descend the stairs and she curls into a ball, playing keep-away with the phone. "Bella?" "Give me the phone." "It's Alice--aah!" She shrieks as I pick her up under the arms and try to set her on her feet. She goes limp from the waist down. "Can you -" "Give me the friggin' phone!" I try to grab it and Alice elbows me in the chest. She's so boney it hurts like hell. "Can you come over this afternoon?" she asks Bella calmly as I die coughing next to her. I make another half-hearted grab for the phone and Alice stomps on my foot. I'll snap her fucking wand in half. "Okay, great. See you then." She hangs up and hands me the phone. "You fucking bitch," I growl at her. Alice isn't perturbed by my tone. "She's coming over in an hour, but she can only stay till four. She has to volunteer tonight." "Next time, just give me the phone." Alice rolls her eyes. "I did you a favor. If you had called, it would have taken you an hour just to work up the guts to ask her over." Maybe I'll burn her wand instead. Just try scotch-taping that back together. "Love you," she says sweetly, and skips down the stairs. I have about forty-five minutes before Bella is due to arrive. Time enough for a power-nap. The sound of her truck will wake me up. The depth of my desire to see her surprises me. It's been a rough weekend, and she knows how to make me feel better ­ when she isn't making me feel like an asshole. I don't know what I want to do with her today. Maybe we'll go for a walk. Maybe we'll fumble through Bach again at the piano. Maybe we'll cook one of her recipes and her face will light up like it does when food just comes together exactly as planned. The thought of that smile comforts me to sleep. The need to use the bathroom wakes me up. I push the pillow away groggily and sit up. My joints ache and my limbs feel like lead. Fuck. I hope this is just from sleeping in one position too long, and not the early signs of muscle fatigue. Then I notice that it's dim in my room. The sun has shifted away from my bedroom window, around the corner of the house. I look at the clock and realize it's almost four. "Shit." Alice laughs downstairs, and I'm fairly sure that's Bella, not another of Alice's friends, laughing along with her. I get out of bed, wobbling slightly on sore joints, and use the bathroom as quickly as possible before heading downstairs. I have to take the stairs slowly. My knees and ankles protest every step, but gradually loosen with 85

more motion. I follow the sounds of life to the kitchen, where Alice and Bella are bent over a magazine, chatting happily. I brace my forearms on the doorframe as Bella looks up. "When did you get here?" "About two hours ago." I've slept away practically all the time I had with her today. "Why didn't you wake me up?" "You need your rest," Alice says, and I shoot her the look. She knows the kind: the I-will-torchyour-Hogwarts-robes one. I hate her even more right now because she's right. I can feel fatigue creeping up the muscles in my back and legs, even though I just had a nap. "I've gotta get going," Bella says. She grabs her purse from under the table and her jacket off the back of the chair. Watching her do it makes me angry ­ I haven't had my time with her yet. She was supposed to come visit with me, not Alice. "Sorry we didn't get time to talk," Bella says as we walk to the front door. "If you're up for it, give me a call tonight. Or we'll talk tomorrow." I want to ask her to blow off volunteer work to stay with me, but she'd never do it. Bella takes her commitments seriously. "What time do you get off?" "Eight." "Maybe you could come back here after?" Bella hesitates over her words on the front porch. "It's a school night." "One of your dad's rules?" "No, one of mine." "Oh." Personal principle or not, it stings that she doesn't want to spend time with me. And after the weekend I've had, any small rejection feels particularly wounding. "She got you good, didn't she?" Bella says with a casual study of my face. "Can't let her do that, man. Do what I do ­ turn your demons into better things." She claps me on the shoulder ­ ow - and turns away. She gets into her truck and I'm walking as fast as I can to catch her before she leaves. My growing fatigue makes my feet feel heavier than they ought. Bella's eyebrows go up as I climb into the passenger seat beside her. "How?" "Uh..." "Tell me. I honestly want to know how you do it." She smiles like she's not sure if I'm joking. "You serious?" "Yes." "Are you high?" My eyes must be bloodshot, if she's asking. "No." "Let's go inside." She looks concerned. I probably look like shit. I certainly feel like it. She gets out of her truck and I follow. These doors are really heavy. I lean a bit on her hood as I walk back to the house. Bella graciously offers her arm. I don't want to take it, but I need it. When cancer-fatigue (which is different from regular fatigue, by the bye) sets in, it's swift and feels like walking through semi-set cement. The three steps up to the porch might as well be Mount Everest. Emmett appears in the front door. "Aw, jeez," he mutters. He probably thinks that Bella's departure has been thwarted by my inability to get back inside unassisted. Emmett comes down the steps and puts an arm under my shoulder. He gets me up the steps and into the house. "When did you last eat?" "I'm not going to pass out," I tell him. "Just sore." He helps me up to the second floor and into my room. I'm lucky to have a brother like Em ­ he knows how to be discreet when it counts. He takes my 86

shoes off, knowing I don't have the energy to lift my feet up to do it myself, and gets a pair of pajamas out of the drawer. "He'll be all right," Emmett says to Bella in a dismissive sort of way. He's giving her permission to leave. She's hanging back in the threshold. "He'll sleep it off." He pats my head roughly. The noogies are going to start again as soon as my hair grows back. "We'll talk tomorrow," she promises me. "Wait. We can still talk ­ I'm just...sluggish." That's one of the shitty things about cancer-fatigue. I can be completely physically drained and still be mentally wide-awake. "Get comfy," she says, and closes the bedroom door. Emmett gives me a hand to change and tucks me into bed. "Don't tell Mom." She'll worry, and I'll probably feel better by the time she gets back from Seattle. "Sure, bro." I'm certain he's lying to me. Emmett leaves and shuts the door behind him. Bella doesn't immediately come back, and I wonder if she changed her mind. Or maybe I misinterpreted her words, and she never meant to stay. Maybe she'll come back after volunteering, only it's a school night... I'm waiting for the sound of her engine when the door opens a crack and she peeks in. "Are you sure you want to talk? This can wait." "Come in. I'm sure." Bella steps into my room and closes the door behind her. Tucked up in bed like this I feel like such a...such a....cancer patient. It's stupid, but I like to appear healthier than I am, especially in front of her. I don't want to be disgusting and fragile. Bella puts down her bag, toes off her shoes, and crawls across my bed towards me. I could get used to the look of that. She sits cross-legged beside me and sets a spare pillow across her lap. "You still want to talk about demons?" Maybe she is willing to blow off her shift. "Yeah, I do." If it'll make her stay. Bella reaches over me and grabs the container of medicinal cream off the nightstand. She takes my scarred, dry hand into her lap and begins to rub lotion into it while she talks. These personal liberties she's wont to take are at once endearing and frightening. "It depends where you put your pain," she says thoughtfully. "I used to store mine in my heart and lungs, so when I hurt it felt like I was dying." "You said your grandma told you not to mourn." "I didn't. I missed her like she had gone on vacation, until about six months later when the reality of it hit me like a ton of bricks and her absence became real. And even if you don't really mourn, there's other shit to deal with." "You seem to have dealt with it ok." "That's because emotional pain is a sensation that your body can't sustain forever, especially if you store it in a physical place. Eventually, if you're determined to change that feeling, it becomes something less haunting. You become thankful for what happened and how bad it sucked by refusing to weigh the negatives and only focusing on the positives." "You sound like one of those self-help charlatans." "That'll be five hundred bucks, please." She spreads the cream right down my wrist, massaging it into the skin with her thumbs. "When it hit me all at once like that, I snapped and threw a brick through the kitchen window. It didn't make me feel any better." Her mouth twitches into a fleeting grimace. "But seriously, yeah, my grandma is gone, but in some ways it's a blessing. She isn't hurting anymore. Her disease made us closer than we would have been, otherwise. If I hadn't been there through her illness, I wouldn't have been able to give you that soup recipe." She smiles at me and then goes back to being serious. "I might 87

have been skittish of you, like Tanya is." I would have been happy to keep this conversation all about her. "I don't blame Tanya." "What was the demon this weekend?" Bella sets down my right hand and reaches out to take my left. "Were you being serious when you said you liked my hands? Or were you telling me what you thought I wanted to hear?" The skin on my hands is perpetually dry and cracking around the joints. Bella runs her thumb around the edge of the white scar on my palm from graft-versus-host disease. These aren't pretty hands. "When do I ever just tell you what you want to hear?" "Fair point." Bella laces her fingers with mine, spreading lotion between my knuckles. Her hands are so small. "The demon?" "There are a few." "Tell me." "It's no big deal." "Misery shared is misery halved." "Another time, ok?" "I already know one," Bella says thoughtfully. "You feel self-conscious that she couldn't look at you." "Kinda." Tanya did look, eventually. She just saw everything that isn't me. "Did she ask uncomfortable questions about your illness, like I do?" Bella smirks at that. "Yes. More than you did, actually. She's known me longer, I guess. She thought she was entitled to answers." "Is that a positive or a negative?" "It doesn't matter. I only told her what I wanted to tell." "What's the worst thing about having cancer?" I don't even think to stop her when she pushes my sleeve up and massages the lotion into my triceps. I should. There's a reason why I wear long sleeves all the time. "That it takes away so much more than just physical function." "You mean like Tanya's approval?" I bite the inside of my cheek. It's somewhat easier that she isn't looking at me. She's focused on the skin under her hands. "Yeah. And my parents' money, and time ­ I'll never get another crack at junior year. And it made Alice sick and took away my status as a person ­ as a guy ­ and my GPA has gone to shit because I'm tired all the time." "Will the fatigue wear off eventually?" "It's supposed to. It's the transplant, and the drugs I still take for it." She doesn't ask what I got from Alice. Thank Fuck. We don't need to have that conversation right now. "Does it hurt?" "Sometimes." My joints still hurt in the mornings, and then there's the stomach upsets that my myriad of drugs makes me sensitive to. "How long until you're supposed to get your energy back? Is there a common recovery time for most patients?" Of course, she doesn't know about cancer recovery. She knows about treatment and death. Her grandma never made it to the other side of the slope. "Up to a year. Some much less." Bella nods acceptingly. "It's been almost five months." 88

"I guess you're pretty tired of being tired?" "Don't you dare imagine that was clever." Bella looks up at me and chuckles. "I'm sorry you're tired." "I don't need your pity." "Did I say I pitied you?" "You were thinking it." "Don't pretend you know me," she says in a cheesy imitation of my voice. I flick the hand that's massaging mine. "That's not funny." "I'm not a clown." "Right, you're a demon guru." Bella presses her hands together and bows like a yogi. She checks her watch and says she has to go. "But before I do..." She goes to my desk and grabs a pad of PostIts and a pen out of the cup. She writes on two of the sticky notes, folds them, and puts them on opposite sides of the room, equal distance from my bed. "What are you doing?" "Read them when you feel well enough to get up," she says. She grabs her purse from the floor beside the bed and tells me to feel better. "See you tomorrow." She kisses my cheek, and then she's gone. A few minutes later, I can hear her truck start from my bedroom with the door closed. Maybe it's a good thing her truck is so loud; it prevents her from making surprise visits. My cheek tingles a little bit where she kissed it. You are such a chick sometimes. Shut up. Fine. Your balls and I will be over here. Join us when you're through. I'll do that. Fine. Fine. Emmett pokes his head in and asks if I need anything. It's tempting to ask him to pass me Bella's notes, but he'd read them before handing them over and make fun of me, I'm sure. I thank him, tell him no, and relax deeper into bed. It's nine-o-clock by the time I feel well enough to get out of bed. Alice is watching Harry Potter downstairs. Mom is home. She must be onto something ­ she's singing while she works. She only does that when she catches a break or hits her stride. Dad's shift ended thirty minutes ago; he'll be home soon. I shuffle towards the dresser and the first of Bella's notes. I unfold it and turn on the lamp to read. Hey, you ­ you're beautiful. Shit. This feels bitterly nice, knowing she left that for me. She was just trying to make me feel better, but the white lie still warms me. I re-fold it and put the paper in the bottom of my sock drawer for safekeeping. The other note is on my bookshelf. I make my way over to it and untwist her second paper. Ask me what I think about before I fall asleep. Under that, in parentheses and tiny lettering, she's written: There's another note in the mailbox. I put on my slippers and go downstairs. It's chilly tonight, and I don't linger on the porch as I grab her third note and take it back upstairs. I shut the door behind me for privacy and lean back against the wood. Why didn't she leave this one out in the open? I have to be careful not to tear the paper in my 89

haste to unfold it. Made you look. Sucker.

Tuesday

The dynamic of this friendship is screwed up beyond repair. Bella casually hands me a mint as she doodles on the margins of her page. She just knows when I'm not feeling well, like Alice does. This is the girl who's seen me puke, rage, come close to tears, and laid up in bed like the sick fuck I am. And she still hangs out with me. "You're staring." "What are you doing tonight?" "Girls' night out with Jess and Angela." Why is it so fucking hard to get a bit of her time these days? I feel like I have to schedule an appointment with her three weeks in advance. She's popular, dumbshit. "You're not avoiding me, are you?" She looks at me sideways and quirks an eyebrow, like she's waiting for me to realize how stupid my own question is. "Well you didn't wake me up yesterday," I retort quietly. "You were sleeping so soundly." She saw me sleeping? Alice didn't just tell her that I was napping? My own unwitting vulnerability irks me, but then my stupid brain catches up. She's seen you puke on multiple occasions. Don't forget the crying. Or the shuffling around like an old man. Shut up! "What do girls do on a night out?" "That's classified information," she says seriously. "Can I come?" I say with a smirk. Bella rolls her eyes at me. It was worth a try. You take desperate to a level not worth naming.

Wednesday

I might just be fucked. I have an English test two days from now on Romeo and Juliet. I probably should have read that. I don't think knowing the names of the title characters and the general ending are going to help me scrape by on this one. Thankfully, I have an English nerd for a friend. I bring it up to Bella during lunch. "What, you want me to help you study?" she clarifies. "Or you could tell me what it's about? I haven't read the book." "The play, dipshit." I have the childish urge to stick my tongue out at her, but refrain. I need to exploit her dorkiness. "You can't read it all tonight," she says. "Have you seen the movie?" "No." "I have a copy." "Can I borrow it?" The great thing about Shakespeare is that the movie and the book ­ er, play ­ are guaranteed to match. Dear Willy wrote the script for both. "Yeah. Do you need it tonight?" 90

"Kinda." This is turning into a rather grand favor. "Come by tonight and pick it up." I continue to negotiate with her, and in the end she agrees to watch it with me and explain all the shit that isn't self-evident to us modern English speakers. I used to be a good English student, but Shakespeare was always my Achilles' heel. I've always had to devote more time and brainpower to his plays than I have to any other subject or assignment. I don't hold out hope that the movie will be a grand simplification of my Shakespeare problems. "I don't know why you didn't read it. It's a beautiful play." "Swan, I barely have the energy to do my half of our bio project." Bella gives me a sideways look, arched eyebrows and all. "Okay, my third." To be fair, she does do more of the work. "So, tonight?" "You owe me." Bella has yogurt in her fridge. I wonder.... I put together a snack for us while Bella sets up the movie and fast-forwards through the previews. Cheese sticks for Bella, lime yogurt for me. She takes her dad's easy chair and I lie down on the couch and get comfy. Bella pauses the tape at the end of every act or important speech and grills me on what it was about. "I thought you were supposed to be explaining this to me?" "Come on, it's good practice for tomorrow." I blunder through it and Bella bitches me out a few times for obvious fuck-ups. At the end of the movie she still has to explain the whole damn play to me. "Well that's dumb," I say when she talks about the suicide motif. Bella throws a pillow at my head. "It's not dumb, it's romantic!" "I bet a bunch of sixteenth-century fourteen year olds went out and killed themselves for romance just because they saw Romeo and Juliet do it." "You're full of shit, Cullen." Bella turns back to the TV with pursed lips and shuts off the video. She starts flipping channels, looking for a reason not to talk to me. I take the cheese plate back to the kitchen with my yogurt cup. It's almost six; I need to take my meds. "Do you want a drink?" I call to Bella. "No, thanks." At least she answered. I haven't pissed her off too bad. I pour myself a glass of water and take my medication out of my back pocket. I carry around one of those plastic pill-sorters like an old man. In the 'afternoon' slot are seven pills: one for pain, an iron capsule because I'm anemic, two Gravol ­ which are partly for show ­ magnesium and famotidine. I take them in groups of three and then wait a minute before taking the Gravol. Half the time the stuff doesn't work at countering the nausea induced by my other drugs. I turn to put the water pitcher back in the fridge when Bella laughs suddenly in the other room. I shut the fridge and go see what's so funny. It's a news report about Washington's senator. The twit tripped and fell clear off the stage on his way up there to make a speech at a press conference. The pundits are discussing this incident seriously, like it's consequential news. I can't believe the shit that tops economic woes, war and famine. Bella is fucking hysterical. "Okay, it's funny, take it easy, psycho." "That's usually me!" she says with a giggle and wipes her watery eyes. I sit down on the couch and change the channel. She doesn't protest. I pause on Animal Planet and she calls me a pervert. This channel has forever been ruined by creeps who like to watch animals fuck. 91

Bella checks her watch and mutters something about starting dinner. I keep flipping channels. She's gone for a few minutes before I realize I left my meds on the counter. Oh shit. I very quietly make my way to the kitchen door. Maybe she didn't notice. I left the container over by the toaster, after all. No such luck. Bella's back is to me. She rests her hands against the counter next to the toaster, looking down. All the compartments on my sorter are open. I didn't leave it that way. Bella notices my presence and jumps. She looks away hurriedly, wipes a hand across her cheeks, and awkwardly remarks, "Oxycontin is a bitch, eh?" She knows what the drug looks like by the sight of the pills alone ­ that's a little fucked up. I quietly pack up the sorter and pocket it. Bella is still facing away from me. She's unusually quiet and every few minutes she runs a hand over her face, like she's wiping away tears. It's bizarrely entrancing, watching her cry. For one, I didn't know she even had tear ducts, solid as she is. For another...I feel slightly compelled to do something about it. "Do you want me to go?" "Uh...no." "Do you need a minute?" Bella turns and leans back against the counter with her arms folded. Her eyelashes are stuck together with tears and her lids are red-rimmed. She bites her lower lip and looks me up and down, studying me. "Are you in a lot of pain?" "Sometimes." My answer stirs up some disturbing memory for her ­ I can see it in her face. "It's just a maintenance dose. You can't just go off opiates all at once. When I'm actually in pain I take two tablets." Why the hell am I telling her this? "My grandma took Percocet. But it made her sick, so they put her on Oxy." I smirk. Oxycontin is responsible for most of my stomach upsets, but it's the gentlest of several options. Percocet fucks me hard, too. I was so high I couldn't move except to throw up ­ and I did a lot of that. Bella sucks in a deep breath, holds it, and says, "I need to start dinner" on the exhalation. She steps away from the counter and opens the fridge. "I should go." "You're not staying for dinner?" "I should be getting back, and you'd need to make a separate meal for me anyway." She doesn't need that trouble. I turn to go. "Cullen," Bella tiredly calls me back. "Come here. I have another recipe I want to show you." Damn it, she knows my weakness. Bella puts a pre-frozen lasagna in the oven to bake and then begins to pull ingredients for my meal. She makes me help this time and promises I won't get burnt. "This is a cold dish." The end result is a tart that has the consistency of cheesecake, but without the flaky crust. It's low in acid, sugar-free, and creamy as pudding: the brilliant combination of cream cheese, vanilla and berry yogurt, and honey. "I might have to steal your recipe binder." "It doesn't contain all my recipes." She smirks and taps her temple smugly. "I might have to blackmail you, then." She laughs and leaves me to eat this fucking amazing tart. "Hey," I interrupt her as she checks the readiness of the lasagna. "I meant to ask you yesterday ­ what do you think about before you go to sleep?" "Shouldn't you first give me shit about the one I left in your mailbox?" 92

"Just tell me." "Or the one I left in the umbrella stand?" "You left one in the umbrella stand?" "And in your jacket pocket." I get up and go to the foyer where my jacket hangs on a peg. I rifle through the side pockets and front pockets, finding only mint wrappers. "The inner pocket, genius," she calls from the kitchen. I can hear her cutting the lasagna. The note is folded up so small it's the size of a pencil eraser. I unfold it and take it back to the kitchen to read her scrawl under proper light. I think about music. And all I can think is, Well that was anticlimactic. What were you hoping for? Nothing. You were hoping she thought about you, like you think about her. No I don't. "I've been listening to Bach." That perks me up. "Yeah?" She plays his music horribly, but it's one of the few weak points of connection we share. "I think I like Wagner better." I fucking hate Wagner. When I get home I check the umbrella stand in the foyer. Her note has fallen right to the bottom with the dust bunnies and a few of Alice's stray mittens that she's continually losing. It says: That's twice now. Sucker.

Thursday

I study my way into a headache as I sit in the dialysis clinic. If I ever invent a device for time travel, I am going back to the fifteenth century to punch Shakespeare right in the face. The guy deserves a beating as revenge for every English-speaking student over the last four hundred years who has had to endure his work. Alice notices my occupation when she and Mom come to pick me up, and starts to gush about this painful piece of tripe. "It's so romantic," she croons. "It's about as romantic as an axe wound to the head." "Edward," she whines with a pout. There goes my chance of getting a mango milkshake tonight. And I was really craving one... Alice's birthday dinner is fairly low-key, considering it's her sweet sixteenth. It's just family tonight. Mom and Dad are letting her throw a party with friends later this Spring, when the weather is more favorable. Mom bought a Harry Potter themed ice cream cake from Dairy Queen, but it looks like the clerk thought the cake was for a six-year-old, not a sixteen year old, because Mom has added the 1 with raspberry jam. Alice barely notices. "Open mine first." Emmett lobs Alice's present at her across the table. She has to lean back in her chair to keep from hitting her face as she catches it. 93

Alice shakes the box before opening it and there's a clanking sound. She broke it. "Oh no!" Alice tears off the wrapping and opens up a shoebox. It's a box of broken bottle glass. "Just kidding," Emmett says. "Here's your real one." He throws a much smaller box at her. He's given her a pair of earrings. "You threw a box of broken glass at her?" I say quietly as Alice crumples up the used paper. "It was wrapped. Perfectly safe." I suppose he's right, but I can't help but think of the Christmas he gave me a pet rock. The thing fell through the bottom of the box and broke my toe. Alice receives a new skirt and blouse from Mom and Dad, and a card with cash from our grandparents. I got her a stuffed plush owl. I really shouldn't enable her childish obsession with those books, but the way her face lights up when she sees it can't compete with any reasoning. "It's Hedwig!" She bounces around the table to give me a hug, chanting "thank you" over and over. Then I inform her that it's actually a puppet and she practically blows a happy fuse. She shoves her hand up its ass and finds the second part of her gift. It's a much smaller brown owl. "Pig!" "No, owl, silly," Emmett says. "No, his name is Pigwidgeon." And it's a finger puppet. Alice puts an owl on each hand and starts a conversation between them. Dad chuckles and stands up to clear away the dirty ice cream plates. "We're never going to get that off her hand," he says of the puppets. Shit. He's right. What have I done?

Friday

Mornings after dialysis are like hangovers in reverse. I go to bed feeling groggy and sluggish and wake up feeling alive ­ until the rest of my medication catches me up and I crash again. From the first round of dialysis I noticed its tendency to screw with my energy cycles and sex drive. I'd get these weird bursts of energy that would promptly be shot down by chemo fatigue. I'd be horny as hell but have little inclination or privacy to masturbate. It got better when I started to receive dialysis as an outpatient, because I could go home and sleep it off and I had the option to jerk off fruitlessly in the morning. And today is one such morning. I wake up starfished across my bed with my pillow at my feet ­ I'm a restless sleeper after dialysis, but I never feel more rested than the morning after. I could flail all night and never feel a thing, and the pillows are my hapless victims. I contemplate reaching down to retrieve my pillow, but decide it's hardly worth it. Sandwiched comfortably between my body and the mattress is a promising start to the day. I get out of bed and turn on the shower. I'm really recovering now; this is going to go right this time. I strip in the dark and step into the warm shower. I angle the showerhead toward the inner wall and lean back against the tiles, directly under the spray. The steam feels like hot breath on my skin, and for a split second I'm reminded of the few times Tanya and I experimented with kissing each other. I can't think about her right now, and push that thought away as quickly as I can. Images from various porn sites take her place. There isn't much quality stuff online for free, but enough to get me going. But no matter what I think about ­ her parts, her slutty clothes, her positions - the girl in my head 94

always turns into a petite brunette. Don't over-think that ­ not now. I bend and twist the brunette in my mind ­ the one with fair skin and full lips and a tempting look in her eye. The idea of her gets me harder than I've been in awhile, and as I move my hand and the water runs down my front I feel the familiar weightlessness of a building climax. My back begins to cramp from leaning against the shower wall. I ignore it at first, too afraid that the slightest pause will make this wonderful feeling disappear. But then my knees start to shake, and I kneel down on the floor of the tub, taking the weight off my back and legs. Relax. You're making yourself too tense. I'm so afraid of not coming that I'm psyching myself out, and then I can't. It's a vicious fucking cycle. I focus on the brunette, on the fantasy of bending her over in this very tub. She'd brace her hands against the slippery sides, with water running down her back and my hands around her hips. I'd fuck her within an inch of her life, and she would still scream for more. She'd be tight as fuck and have a goddamned dirty mouth... Suddenly I feel like I've been kicked in the balls and the stomach at once. I curl reflexively around my abdomen with a grunt of pain as my cock twitches in my hand. Thin strings of semen dribble pathetically out of my penis. I'm ejaculating, but where the fuck is the orgasm? Why the hell did that hurt so much? I rest a hand between my hips, where the throbbing is still painful. It feels like I pulled a muscle. There's a similar pain behind my balls. You pulled a muscle just by coming, it's been so long. This is how ninety-year old men must feel. I rest my head against the shower wall and sigh. I'm not even semi-erect anymore. What a fucking rip-off. It felt so good, and then... "Fuck!" I slam my fist against the side of the bathtub in frustration. "Edward?" I can totally understand deer caught in the headlights now. I freeze as Mom knocks on the bathroom door. She must have come in to wake me up. How much did she hear? "Are you all right?" Without waiting for an answer she opens the bathroom door. "Mom!" "Why is it dark in here?" "Because the lights are off. Get out!" I stand up and hold the edges of the shower curtain shut. She turns on the bathroom light. I'm fucked. "I heard a thump. Did you fall?" "No! I dropped a bottle. Get out, please." "It sounded heavier than that." Her fingers slip around the edge of the curtain, ready to push it back. I slap her hand away. "Mom! Get out!" "Are you bleeding?" "No!" Alice's slippers make a slapping sound on the floor as she crosses my bedroom to stand in the bathroom door. I can smell the coffee in her hand, mingled with the steam from the shower. "What's going on in here?" she asks cheerfully. "Everyone is going to get out, now!" "Did you bump yourself against the shower? Why on earth would you shower in the dark, anyway? Are you bruising?" Mom persists. Maybe I'll put the plug in the drain and drown myself. "Yeah, Edward," Alice interjects. "Is it swollen?" She takes her coffee away with a giggle, and the 95

plug becomes irrelevant. I am going to die of embarrassment long before the tub could fill enough to drown in. Mom mutters something about breakfast and bagels, sounding nearly as embarrassed as I feel, and the bathroom door shuts sharply behind her. Breakfast is going to be awkward. As I towel off, I hear Emmett's booming laugh and know that it's going to be a very long drive to school.

96

10. March 21 to 30

Friday

On humid days like this the cafeteria is too stuffy for comfort ­ and Jessica keeps trying to talk to me about Mike's proficiency as a kisser. Fuck no. I drift away from the group more or less silently. It's not until I'm outside the main office that I notice I'm not alone. Edward follows just slightly behind me, hands in his pockets. "Fucking airless in there," he says. "You read my mind." Edward and I go outside to the parking lot to sit on one of the picnic tables, resting our feet on the bench. The air is cool and damp and refreshing and the lot is quiet apart from the infrequent cries of gulls. There's harsh weather coming in, if the gulls are hanging out inland. The silence between Edward and I is comfortable. He usually feels the need to fill these, but today he doesn't. He just rests his elbows on his knees, twines his fingers together, and watches the seagulls scavenge for food around the school trashcans. "Who do you think would win in a fight over garbage ­ a seagull or a raccoon?" he says suddenly. "Raccoons. They're smarter, hunt in packs, and have claws." "But the seagull can shit on a whim." I laugh without meaning to. "How is that relevant?" "Even if it doesn't get the garbage, it can get revenge. So who wins?" "Well what would you rather have ­ food or vengeance?" He thinks about that for a minute. "Food." As if on cue, one of the gulls takes a shit on Newton's windshield. Edward laughs, but I contain myself. I merely smile. "Fuck it," he says. "Vengeance is better, but only if you have an army of seagull minions to carry it out." I shake my head. "Why do I know you?" Edward turns to me with that sideways smile. "You could be my second in command. We could take over Greenland." "Greenland?" "No one would expect it." I smile and suppress the urge to ask him if he's high. "Fine. Greenland it is." His mood is unusually good today. It lends him a buoyancy, an ease of movement, that isn't typical of him. He smiles easily instead of wryly or reluctantly. When he jokes, he isn't insulting anybody or self-deprecating. He's...happy. Some of Edward's paleness is starting to fade. Healthy color is coming back into his face and hands, even though the latter are still scarred. His lips don't blend in with the rest of his face anymore. He has nice lips, if properly appreciated. Looking at his skin under the sunlight, it looks like he might have shaved this morning, and I wonder if his hair is starting to grow back enough for that. Maybe it's just the color coming back into his skin that's giving it a new texture. I wonder about him. He was so put off balance by Tanya this past weekend ­ he must value her opinion highly. He called her his friend, but perhaps that's a new label on their relationship. Maybe they were something else entirely. Maybe that's why he took it so hard. I can't picture Edward dating anyone. Then again, I also can't really picture him as the bronzehaired teenager I've seen in photos. I've only known this incarnation of him; this sensitive, lovable 97

asshole. Maybe I don't know him well enough to know his romantic predilections ­ maybe Tanya wasn't it, but someone else was. Edward isn't exactly vocal about the past. I don't know if he's ever dated, much less whom, or if he has a type. Even the broad categories like orientation have never come up in conversation. I'll keep him filed under "ambiguous" for now. "Why are you staring at me like that?" The happiness in his eyes dims with suspicion. He gets so defensive over the smallest things. I can't even have the pleasure of looking at him without an excuse. It irks me. "What's the matter? Aren't you used to it?" His face goes blank, but his hands clench into fists before he gets up off the picnic table and storms away. Moody as ever, I see. I knew better than to say that, and now I need to apologize. I get up and take my time crossing the parking lot. Edward is fairly marching toward the Volvo, pissed off as he is. I know he's sensitive about his appearance and others' reactions to him, but even though he says he likes me for not being afraid to look, I don't think that even he wants to look at himself. Edward gets into the driver's seat and leans over to check the glove box for a spare key. I open the passenger door and slide in. "Fuck off," he growls at me. "I'm sorry." "Get out." "At least let me apologize. I was out of line." "Damn right you were." He slams the glove box closed. His palms come down heavily on the steering wheel as he blows out an angry breath. I watch his knuckles turn white as he grips the wheel of a stuck-stationary vehicle. "Can we talk?" "What the fuck is there to talk about?" He won't look at me. I must have stepped farther over the line than I thought. "Why I was staring at you." That gets his attention. His head swivels in my direction and he looks at me like I just threatened to set off a firecracker in the car. "Why?" he finally asks. "I was thinking about Alice." A little crease appears between his eyebrows. He wasn't expecting that, and can't see how it all adds up to the look I was giving him. "About her and that guy she's crushing on. The basketball player." "What about them?" "Does romance weird you out? Or is it just Alice?" "Just Alice. She's my baby sister, for crying out loud. She isn't supposed to be interested in that kind of crap." His fingers, which were beginning to relax on the steering wheel, tense again. "Mmmh. I see." "No you don't, you're an only child." I wait for him to realize what an ass he's being, and after he reacted so badly to my harsh words. "Yeah, because my parents divorced before I was a year old. Yours stayed happily married long enough to have more than one. You wouldn't be here, otherwise." It dawns on him that he's being a selfish jerk, and he apologizes quietly. "Accepted." "Was that really all you were thinking?" "More or less." 98

"What does that mean?" I've irritated him again. "I was also kind of wondering, if it wasn't just Alice that bugged you, but romance in general, if you were some kind of closet case or asexual." He looks at me expectantly, like I haven't finished my sentence. When I don't continue after ten seconds he bursts out laughing. The sudden noise makes me jump, and I sit there watching him rock in his seat with bitter laughter. "You are so...!" He cuts himself off to think of the right word. "So..." "What?" "Absurd. That's it ­ absurd! Who else would jump to such a wild conclusion but you?" "Well you roll your eyes at Jess and Lauren whenever they talk about dating, and you're downright mean to Alice whenever she shows interest in a guy. You're cynical about Rosalie's boyfriend. You never show interest in any of the girls at school ­ it's not such a wild conclusion, when you really think about it." "Jess and Lauren talk about petty high school drama. It's juvenile. And I've already explained Alice. Rosalie's relationship is a joke, and what good does it do me to be interested in any girl here ­ who the hell would go out with me?" "You're right." That takes him aback. Edward gapes at me, eyes wide and mouth open. "You're an absolute asshole. Any girl with half a brain would avoid you." He adjusts his face into a more neutral expression and turns away. Edward slouches down in the driver's seat, looking thoughtful. Stray raindrops begin to hit the windshield. "Why don't you avoid me?" "You've grown on me." "Like a tumor." "Edward." He absolutely has to ruin everything with bitterness and morbidity, doesn't he? He mutters 'I'm sorry,' and sighs. "Can we just forget about this?" "No. You've made me curious." "I'm not going to tell you what kind of cancer I had." "Not about that. Is there anyone you're interested in?" Lord have mercy on the girl he chooses to pursue. He'd probably be all creepy and melodramatic about it, like Van Gough. Edward looks at me out of the corner of his eye. The movement is just a flicker, gone before I can be sure I've seen it, and he sighs. "No." "You sure?" Edward opens the car door and steps out. Before it shuts I hear him say quietly, as though not meant to be heard, "No."

Saturday

The gulls made good on their prophecy. It rained hard all night, with thunder and lightening to punctuate the Devil's Hour. The storm carries over into the morning, bringing down blustery winds and flirting with sleet. The notion of a rainy day indoors is relative in Forks, but on an especially nasty day like today it's hard to do anything. Of course, some people can't be deterred. Jake calls at nine-o-clock and persuades me to drive (carefully) down to La Push to spend the day in his garage. He was deeply offended when he heard that I didn't know how to do basic stuff to my truck like change a tire or check the oil. So we scheduled this little meeting to "make me less of a white city girl." I'm not sure if that's racist or just true. Jake clearly lives out in his garage, which is a collection of bolted-together garden sheds. There's 99

food hidden in boxes and coolers all over the place for when he gets hungry, and when I open one of the tool drawers I find what looks like an English assignment, smeared with grease and forgotten about in favor of more interesting endeavors. The subject is a book I've never read before. "It's not a book," he says when I ask about it. "It's one of those old oral stories. None of this book crap." He gives me that impish grin that is totally and completely Jake. "They don't make you do Shakespeare and Mark Twain and stuff?" "Just one of the benefits of going to a very exclusive school." "Public school would be more interesting of they gave us stuff like Moliere to read." "Who's he?" "A French playwright." "Why would you care about a French playwright?" "Because he's good. And I'm a little bit French on my mom's side." Jake gives me this look like I've just announced that I'm from Mars. "Dude, my mom's name is Renee. It's a bit of a tip-off." "Yeah, I just never figured you for French," he says with a shrug. "You don't think a white city girl can have roots too?" I tease him. "The pale-faces came from somewhere to steal your land." "Say something in French, then." "Bonjour." Jake just chuckles and shakes his head. "Roots indeed." As though determined to give me some roots, since mine are so shallow, he tries to teach me a few Quileute phrases. I have trouble wrapping my tongue around the slippery vowels and clipped consonants, which Jake finds downright hilarious. But at least I master 'hello' within the hour. When I get back to civilization (well, Forks, anyway) and cell reception, my phone buzzes with a three missed calls and a text message. The calls were from Edward. How the hell did he get my number? I certainly did not give it to him. He must have sniped my phone while he was over and programmed his info into it. The text message is from him too: Where are you? So I answer, though it's been five hours since he sent that text: You're not the only one who is allowed to be MIA on a Saturday. It's past dinner hour and Charlie has ordered pizza to cope with my absence. I throw a slice in the oven to heat it up and my phone buzzes with Edward's answering text. I reserve the right to monopolize your attention next Saturday. We'll see. Are you home now? What are you doing? Your mom. I don't hear from him again until late at night, just as I'm crawling into bed. I've gotten into the habit of putting headphones on to fall asleep lately. It helps to drown out the sound of the rain on the roof and the branches against the siding. Luckily Edward's text arrives before I press play, or I wouldn't have noticed the buzzing. What are you thinking about tonight? I keep it simple: Music. Santana. He made a reference to one of their songs yesterday at school and I've had the melody stuck in my head since. I can't sleep. Tough break. Are you listening to Santana now? 100

Yeah. "Into the Night." Can I listen with you? Before I can reply my phone rings. That's not my usual ringtone. It's a short recording of Edward saying, "Pick up, it's me."A picture of his stupid smirking face replaces the background image. Not only did he steal my number, he programmed himself into my phone, created an annoying ringtone, and took a picture to go with it. That douche. "We need to have a talk about boundaries," I say in place of 'hello.' He giggles like a little kid who has managed to pull off a lame prank successfully. "I thought it was pretty stealthy." "You are such a shit." "Did you have a good day?" There's a hopeful undercurrent in his voice, like he genuinely wants me to be happy. "It was great." "Did you and Charlie do something?" "No, I was at La Push all day." "Oh." He doesn't like that. And it's too late in the day for me to even consider dealing with his sulky bullshit. "Do you want Santana or not?" "Yeah, please." I leave one earphone in and place the other over my cell phone mic on my pillow. I listen to "Into the Night" with Edward, a song that is bizarrely lullabyish despite the electric guitars. "Goodnight," I say when the song ends. He doesn't answer me, but I hear slow breathing on the other end of the line. Couldn't sleep my ass.

Sunday

I set today aside for errands, since I've been busy all week. I should be done fairly quickly, because it's Forks and the shopping district consists of a single street, one block long. I make a quick stop at the bank, and then it's on to the grocery store. The plan is to buy a little bit more than I usually do, make a few meals, and freeze them. All this because I am probably not going to want to touch meat immediately before or after my biology project. I'm choosing apples from the bin when a pair of hands grabs my waist suddenly. "Gotcha." I jump. I can't help it. And when I turn around, guess who the culprit is? "Are you seriously stalking me now?" "It's a nice Sunday-morning hobby." He takes the bag of apples from me and ties off the neck. "What next?" He pushes the cart farther down the aisle, toward the nectarines and oranges. I guess he's shopping with me, then. "Fresh ginger," I say, and he gives me a strange look. His expression is almost happy, somewhat satisfied, and a little bit suspicious. Let him wonder. In complete violation of common sense, I bring my stalker home with me. He helps me put the groceries away, and then I sit down to plan four days worth of frozen meals. I figure two lasagnas and fish casseroles should do the trick. I'll make those this afternoon. And in the meantime, I show my stalker how to make green tea sweetened with real fresh ginger. "You should be a chef," he tells me. "You love cooking so much." "Maybe." 101

"Lucky for me you do." Edward nudges my shoulder teasingly. "I was getting sick of puking up green Jell-O." "So you're glad to have a variety of things to puke back up?" That might be the strangest compliment ever given to anyone, anywhere. "No," he says, suddenly serious. "Your food has never made me sick. Well, there was one time, but I was pretty tense, so it probably wasn't the food." "I'm glad to hear it, then." "How do you know?" I look up from the simmering pot of tea on the stove to find him giving me a searching look. "Know what?" "Just what to make, when. You never make something I can't handle, and that changes hour-byhour." I didn't even realize I was doing it, but now that he's asked, the answer springs to mind with the obviousness of plain truth: "I watch you. When you're sluggish you need sugars. When you're cranky you need protein. You suck on the inside of your lip when you're in the mood for something sweet. If you keep very still or flex your hands a lot, I go heavy on the mint and ginger." I shrug. "You're an open book, Cullen." He frowns just slightly and slips his hands into his pockets. "Thank you, for...caring enough to notice all that." "It's habit." "Elsie?" "Everyone. I like to cook, remember? It involves pleasing an audience." But that's only partly true. He had it right with his first guess.

Tuesday

I dawdle over the final report on our replication of Mendel's pea plant experiment. It's silly, but I know that after I finish this, I'll have to cut up a baby pig and draw diagrams of its innards. I procrastinate finishing my project, as if that will forestall the pig dissection. It won't. The date is circled in red on my calendar. Time flies when you're dreading something unpleasant. Edward isn't any more enthusiastic about this project than I am. "I wonder if I can get a doctor's note to get out of it. Get Banner to believe that exposure to formaldehyde is really bad for me or something..." he ponders aloud. "Don't you fucking dare." He is not going to abandon me with a dead pig to cut up on my own. We're in this shitshow together, damn it. "We could both just cut class." "And lose fifteen percent of our grade." "Only fifteen percent." "I didn't think you could afford to lose even five percent in this class." Edward mumbles something that I don't catch, but it sounds rude. That night he calls me up before bed and requests "Bitch" by Meredith Brooks. "Why?" And why am I pandering to his request like a late-night DJ? "It reminds me of you." Immediately the fourth chorus leaps to mind: I'm a bitch, I'm a tease, I'm a goddess on my knees. "You are such an ass." "I'm not calling you a bitch," he protests in that persuasive tone that I've come to think of as his 102

form of whining. It sounds nicer, but it's whining nonetheless, because most of the time it works on me. I ignore his request and put on "Possibility" by Sierra Noble ­ another lullabyish song. It's my go-to music on nights I can't sleep. This time, Edward is awake when the song ends. "Why did you pick that one?" he says quietly. "It seemed apt." He doesn't say anything, but I can hear the faint rustle as he adjusts his position on the other end of the line. "Goodnight." "Goodnight, Bella." He hangs up before I do. His parting tone was sad. Thinking about that keeps me awake later than it ought to.

Wednesday

I put off the report for biology again. It can wait until after all my other homework, and after my volunteer shift at the hospital. It's a boring four hours at the General; I sit beyond the kiosk of artificial flower arrangements that the hospital sells next to the gift shop. Proceeds go to the Diagnostic Imaging Center. And when I get home, I still can't bring myself to do the report. I can't stop thinking about that pig and it makes my skin crawl with dread and disgust. And to my fault, I'm too dedicated a student to let it slide completely. After a very long shower and two helpings of leftover chicken, I sit down at my desk to hammer out at least a hundred words. My phone rings. Thank God. Even if it's Jessica calling to angst over Mike's inattention to her flirtatious endeavors, it'll rescue me from this project. More likely it's Jake, calling to work out plans for this weekend like we said we would. I leap across the room to grab it off my dresser and answer without checking the caller ID. "Thank God you called." An altogether too smug chuckle greets me. "Happy to hear from me?" "Oh, shit, it's you." Edward laughs at me. "What do you want?" "Isn't this your bedtime?" I look over at the clock on my nightstand. It's half past ten, the approximate time when I usually go to sleep. I don't like it that he calls this my 'bedtime' though. "I'm pulling an all-nighter." "Bullshit," he says with a smile. "Who were you expecting a call from this late?" "My mom. Four hour time difference, and all." I'm not sure why I'm lying to him. Maybe because hearing that I've been to La Push tends to make him cranky. "I thought of another song that reminds me of you." "What?" "You know that one 'Beautiful Girl'?" "How dare you compare me to a Beatles song!" "It's just George Harrison." "You're dead to me." Edward snorts softly. I don't know what to say next. I've passed the window of opportunity to hang up on him in irritation. "Are there any songs that remind you of me?" he asks suddenly. "Maybe." "Play one for me?" "Hold on." I flop down on the bed and scroll through my playlists, looking for an appropriate tune. 103

It takes me a few minutes to settle on one, and then I set the phone up next to my earphone and press play. Tonight he gets 'Troublemaker' by Weezer. Perfect for him.

Thursday

I tell Charlie about my weekend plans over dinner, since mine include Jake and his will probably include Billy. As it stands, on Saturday, Jake, Embry, Quil and I are going to carpool into Port Angeles to see a double feature at the only movie theatre for miles. It's a horror special: the original Exorcist and the goofball horror Zombieland. And no, this was not my idea. But Jake took the piss out of me for being scared to even try to sit through it, so of course I have to prove him wrong or I'll never live it down. "I suppose you're involved in Sunday, too?" Charlie says. "What's Sunday?" "They're raising a new totem on the res. Took Harry Clearwater near six years to carve the thing. They're doing an official raising and ceremony." "Sounds cool." I'll have to ask Jake about that. He didn't volunteer the information, which I guess means he doesn't want me to tag along, but I'm still curious to hear the story. All things relating to Jake are usually interesting. Edward calls promptly at ten-thirty. I skip the hello because it's irrelevant and open with, "Do you have nothing better to do with your night?" And he ignores my question, I guess because he finds it irrelevant. "Have you ever heard 'The Gambler' by Kenny Rogers?" "Country?" "Yeah. It reminds me of your demons spiel." "Sorry, I don't have any Kenny Rogers." He's got me thinking, though. "Do you know 'Hard Road' by Sam Roberts?" "No." "It reminds me of my demon spiel too." I skip the headphones tonight and prop my phone up next to my computer speakers. While it plays we both listen to it, and I quietly compile a playlist of other songs that might come up one night ­ the ones that remind me of Edward. Just for shits and giggles, I do a 'Jake' playlist too. He has a lot more 'happy' songs than Edward does. "Don't bring a lunch tomorrow," I tell Edward before we say goodbye. "Why?" "I'm bringing soup." "Really?" He sounds so excited. "A new one or an old one?" "A new one." "What kind?" "You'll find out tomorrow." He whines my name and I tell him to shut up and let it be a surprise. So he just says, "Thanks. You don't have to do this, you know." "I want to." I want him to eat. When he eats he's happy, and when he's happy he can really be himself. The real Edward Cullen isn't as big a drag as the starving, bitter boy who takes over his body periodically. "And you won't even give me a hint?" 104

"Lentils." "Lentils?" "Yes." "And I'll get it before school tomorrow?" "No, you'll get it at lunch, you greedy bastard. I'm not going to give it to you in the morning so you can eat it all too early and be a hungry, cranky bitch by bio." He chuckles at my rant and puts on that persuasive tone, trying to sway me to his way of thinking. "No. You get it at noon." "Fine." He manages to make pouting audible over the phone. "Don't make me regret this," I threaten him. "Noon is fine," he agrees with newfound cheerfulness. He really wants a new soup. We say goodnight ­ he reminds me not to forget the soup ­ and hang up. Downstairs, the ingredients are already chopped and measured and set aside in the fridge, ready to be boiled down tomorrow morning before school. I think he's really going to like this one. Edward has such simple pleasures.

Friday

When the bell rings at the start of lunch, I make my way to my locker and find Edward already there waiting for me, arms folded and tapping his toe impatiently. "Can I have it now?" I pretend to consult my watch. Lunch period technically goes from 11:45 to 12:30, and we agreed on noon. "Well..." "Swan." I open my locker and give him the thermos of soup. Edward unscrews the lid immediately and takes a sniff. He smiles and sips right out of the thermos neck. "Care for a spoon?" I offer him one, and though he takes it, he keeps sipping right from the source as we walk to the cafeteria. "I like it." He practically inhales the soup, and scrapes the sides of the thermos with his spoon when there's no more left to drink. It's incredibly satisfying to make someone's day, especially with something as simple as homemade soup. "You're annoying as fuck, Cullen," I tell him. "But I like you." He grins and tells me the feeling is mutual. We turn in our biology project today. It's rock solid and I'm pretty sure it's A-worthy, but now we're onto mammalian biology. Three days of prelab work, studying anatomy charts and walking through the step-by-step dissection procedure, and then we'll have to touch the dead pig. Jake, of course, has absolutely no sympathy for my plight. He thinks it's hilarious that I'm being such a girl about it. "You cut up chicken and beef for cooking, right? Why is this any different?" "Because it's a baby and it has a face." "Cover the face with a Kleenex or something." "In phase four of the dissection we have to cut open the penis or vulva to examine the internal 105

genitalia." Jake makes an inarticulate sound of sympathy pain. "Okay, I feel sorry for the pig now." "What about me?" "You're holding the scalpel. Your junk will be fine." Tonight is a big night for music. I get to sleep in tomorrow, so I stay up later than normal, listening to pertinent songs with Edward. Tonight the focus is on songs that remind me of him: 'Imaginary Bars' by Great Lake Swimmers; 'Visions of Paradise' by the Rolling Stones; 'Barrett's Privateers' by Stan Rogers. Edward is barely awake by the end of that last one. "What does that have to do with anything?" he mumbles sleepily. "An orderly, optimistic life went awry. The guy got fucked over hard and was permanently disfigured by it." "And that's how you think of me?" "Your physical state isn't permanent. Hair grows back. Severed legs don't." "No," he says quietly. "Time won't fix it all. I'll always be scarred. You're right." "I didn't say that." "Go to sleep, Bella," he says sadly. Edward hangs up quietly and the line goes dead. The fuck? That's a new level of moody sensitivity for him. I call him back immediately ­ he can't just hang up without letting me explain and hopefully beat some sense into him. Edward answers on the second ring and skips the hello. "You know, when people hang up on you, it's because they don't want to talk to you anymore." "Dude, stop wallowing. It's just a song." "Just forget it." "Edward, I don't think of you as scarred and disfigured," I say slowly and clearly. He's playing dense, so I might as well play along and talk to him like a simpleton. "You know what I think of you." "That I'm a narcissistic, boring asshole." "You forgot beautiful." He doesn't say anything. "Sleep on it. But quit wallowing." This time, I hang up on him. He doesn't call back with a snarky riposte. Either he's wallowing, or he's sleeping on it. Smart money is on wallowing.

Saturday

Today was fun ­ until about noon. Seeing Jake and his friends was nice. Driving all the way to Port Angeles was fun, being part of a jokey group like that. Watching the boys buy enough junk food to get an elephant food-drunk was amusing. All this followed by four hours of horror film. I hate horror movies. The Exorcist wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, except that Embry does an eerily good impersonation of the kid's devil-voice and kept doing it on the ride home, just because I let on that it bugged me. Zombieland probably freaked me out more because there was a jump-out-and-yell-boo element. It had its funny moments, but now I can't walk past a door without thinking it'll burst open and scare the shit out of me. But I sat through it. I didn't scream and I didn't cover my eyes, so Jake has no excuse to take the piss out of me for being a wuss. I jumped a few times, but so did he. 106

The late-night ringing of my phone scares the hell out of me, though. What a jumpy little twit I'm being. I really have to change Edward's ringtone. "Pick up, it's me" is starting to get annoying. I answer the call with a clipped, "What?" "Where were you today?" I'm still in a bad mood and Edward's plying tone doesn't make me feel any nicer. "Out with friends." "Jessica?" "No, some friends from the res. We went to a movie." "Why didn't you invite me?" "We had a full car already." "Did it completely slip your mind that we had plans today?" "We did?" "Just forget it." Edward sighs and hangs up on me, and I'm left wondering what the fuck just happened. He and I never made any plans this weekend. The only mention of anything weekend-related was the text he sent me days ago: I reserve the right to monopolize your attention next Saturday. That does not count as making plans. What's in it for me? And I never agreed. I drop my phone on the nightstand, roll over, and hope that he pulls his head out of his ass by Monday.

Sunday

Charlie and I both go to the raising at La Push. Charlie is good friends with a lot of people there, and I have Jake, so it's an excuse to go and see it. We hang toward the back, trying to keep out of the way on the outskirts of the crowd. I have a strange consciousness of being out of place, of being different, but it's only fair. As a middle-class white girl, I don't stand out often, except when I fall over in a loud, embarrassing fashion. The log Harry used to carve the totem is a massive pine, at least three feet around and twelve feet high. It's impeccably carved and brightly painted to make the different shapes stand out against the green and brown landscape. The raising itself only takes half an hour, and there's a lot of culture at work that I don't understand: prayer, song, dance, etc. There's a potluck afterward at the community hall, and I run into Jake. "Hey, you made it." He gives me a friendly hug and then takes me by the hand, leading me through the crowd and introducing me to so many people that their names and faces become a blur. "Is your dad around?" "Somewhere." I shrug and look helplessly around the crowded hall. "Come on." Jake grabs my hand again and leads the way out a side door. We go to his car and I ask what he's doing. "It's low tide," he says with a smile. I smile too. I like it that we have a secret spot to sneak off to amid the hubbub. "Don't you want to stay with the party?" I gesture over my shoulder to the hall. "This will go all night. Low tide only lasts awhile, and it's sunny." So off we go. The party does go all night. Charlie and I finally slip out around eleven, since we have to return to the responsible roles of police chief and student tomorrow morning. We're barely on the outskirts of 107

Forks when my phone starts buzzing with backlogged texts. Five of them, to be precise. The first one came at eleven: I'm sorry I snapped at you yesterday. Can we talk? And fifteen minutes later: Please answer your phone. This is childish. I leave my inbox and check the log for missed calls. I have four. All from him. Needy or what? At twelve: I'm on my way over, since you won't answer. And at twelve-thirty: I can see your car in the driveway, genius. Answer the door. I chuckle humorlessly. Of course my truck is still at the house, I drove to La Push with Charlie in the cruiser. I can picture Edward standing on my porch in the rain, hammering on the door with his usual lack of patience, thinking himself ignored. He clearly gave up on my door sometime between twelve-thirty and three, because the next message is: Call me at home when you get this, please. I left you a voicemail. I wait until Charlie and I get home to dial into my voicemail inbox. I take my phone up to my room first and close the door for privacy. Edward wasn't precisely truthful when he said he left me a voicemail. He left two. The first one begins without a hello: "Look, I know you're mad at me. I shouldn't have snapped on you like that. I was just mad that you made plans and didn't say anything when we usually do stuff on Saturdays. I know I shouldn't have assumed but... Okay, will you just answer your phone? I feel like an idiot talking to your answering machine. And -" The message ends abruptly. I press play on the second message. "Fucking reception," he says by way of explanation for the way his last message ended. "I was going to say we should make plans. If you want to. I could make up for being rude to you the other night." There's a long pause where he doesn't say anything. "Did you really have a full car yesterday? No, never mind, it's not important. Sorry." The message ends. Well, at least he apologized. I don't like the way he thinks he can put dibs on my time, though. We hang out on a few Saturdays, and he thinks he owns that day now? His over-sensitive temper is troublesome, too. He picks fights more than I do. My fourth grade teacher's idea of conventional wisdom surfaces as I brood over Edward's attitude: If others are giving you grief, first examine what you might have done to invite it. Did I give him the impression that he could treat me like this? Shit. I didn't give him the impression that he could boss me around, but I did give the impression of availability and accessibility. I take entirely too much interest in him, and he took that as an invitation to insinuate himself fully into every aspect of my life. If I'd known he would become possessive, I would have been on my guard from the first. Once again, I'm uncomfortably conscious of how much I stare at him. No, not stare - study. I watch his hands for clues to what he's thinking or feeling or craving to eat. I watch his face for signs of health and I could probably list the colors of the toques he's worn over the past three school days. I know what and how much he eats during lunch, even on the days we don't sit at the same table. On Friday I took one of his earphones out without asking, just because I wanted to see what he was listening to. It was "Friday I'm in Love" by the Cure and he got all embarrassed and changed the song. Next to Debussy, The Cure isn't all that embarrassing as far as musical taste goes. But when I got home that night, I listened to the entire album and it reminded me of him. I take far too much interest in Edward for his good or mine. I don't get attached to people. I don't do intimacy in any form. There is a big thick boundary line between my emotions and others' and I have no intention of crossing it. This shit's gotta stop. Precisely because I like it and I think about him far too much. Grandma 108

always said that if something feels good it must be wrong, unless it's so wrong it can only feel good. Of course, she meant that as encouragement - she wanted me to get out of my middle-aged youth and be bad for a change. Still, those words can go many different ways and I will interpret them as suits me. Right now, they're a warning: Take a big fucking leap back, Swan, because you know him well enough to know that he's not the right kind of guy to get close to. He gets attached, and you don't. He's manipulative and sneaky, too. Just look at the caller ID on your phone. Speaking of my phone... I turn it off for the night instead of calling him back. That boy needs to learn that he doesn't own me and has no right to my goodwill. But I suppose no good deed goes unpunished.

109

11. March 31 to April 4

Monday

I text Bella when I get up ­ she still hasn't gotten in touch with me ­ but she doesn't answer that one, either. I wonder if something happened to her. Maybe she fell down the stairs, clumsy as she is, and spent Sunday in the hospital with a concussion or something. I'm relieved when I see her truck in the parking lot at school, but I don't have time to seek her out before the start of first period ­ thank you, Alice, you fucking dawdler. I don't have a chance to see Bella until lunch. I get to the cafeteria and find her without trouble, like she's a homing device sending out a signal. To my surprise, Alice is sitting with her and the usual group. I slide into a nearby seat in time to hear Alice inviting her over this Friday. "It's a small birthday thing. Just a few friends." "I thought your birthday was a few weeks ago?" "It was, but it was so close to the spring dance and the weather was so crummy, I decided to put off a little celebration until things were calmer around here. And the sun was out, of course ­ good weather gives a party atmosphere. It's supposed to be nice this Friday." Bella agrees to attend and Alice gives her a quick hug before skipping away to her regular table to join her friends. Jessica draws Bella into conversation next, and I have no opportunity to get a word in edgewise, the way Jessica babbles. As usual, everyone else at the table ignores me out of discomfort. Angela takes pity on me by the end of the hour, though. "So, did you have a good weekend?" she says shyly. I don't think I've ever spoken two words to her before, but I know she's a good person by what I've seen and heard. "It was pretty quiet." My only friend ditched me ­ twice ­ so I sat at home and moped at the piano. "You?" "It was okay." She doesn't know what to say next, and I don't know her well enough to know what else to ask about her weekend. So we drift off into awkward silence until the bell rings. Bella is ignoring me. She's hummed and hawed over this pig project for weeks now, and yet here she is, too dedicated to the prelab assignment to give me the time of day. Every time I try to start a conversation she answers me in clipped monosyllables without looking away from her paper. "Are you still mad at me? You got my message apologizing, right?" "Cullen," she says, voice thick with irritation. It's a Fuck off in disguise. I let her be. Maybe she's just stressed about the pig project (I should probably put some thought into that project too, come to that), and doesn't really care about this weekend anymore. I open my prelab booklet and skim it. Bella took phases one through three; I have phases four through six. We each have to take a turn to lead the dissection. It's at this point I realize that Bella has given me the job of cutting off the pig's balls and slicing it's dick in half. If it's a girl pig we ­ no, I ­ have to open up the abdomen and pelvic floor to dig for the ovaries and other stuff I don't want to think about. "Trade you phase four for phase three?" "No dice," she says without looking up. Damn it, she actually read the assignment in advance. I take a look at phases five and six ­ removing the brain and deconstructing the spine, respectively. I got the shit end of a fucking ugly stick. 110

Maybe she is still mad. "Everyone ready to discuss the dissection plan with your partner?" Mr. Banner asks the class. He takes the sound of shuffling papers for a yes and tells us to start with the plan for phase one. Bella ignores me, which hardly seems possible, given that we're working on a joint assignment and have to talk about the particulars of pig anatomy. She gives her report on phase one like she's talking to her notebook, and doesn't volunteer anything for the 'discussion' part of the task. She talks to me, sure, but only when I talk to her first and ask point-blank questions, which she answers as curtly as possible. She won't look at me, either, and that unsettles me more. "Look at me." She lifts her head and looks over at me with a tightly controlled expression. Her face doesn't offer softness or compassion or any other inviting emotion. "Why are you looking at me like that?" "You told me to look at you." "Not like that." She turns away with a huff. "You're just like a woman ­ you have no idea what you want." Something happened this weekend. Maybe my rudeness was just the cherry on a shit sundae, but I thought I had fixed this with an apology. I guess not. After an unbearably silent biology period ­ she doesn't look at me again ­ I spend most of my English class writing her a proper apology note. Maybe my tense phone message didn't cut it. I fold the note and slip it under her windshield wiper before the end of the day. I'll call her again tonight. Bella doesn't answer her phone. I call every hour and it consistently goes to voicemail. I try her house line, and Chief Swan says that she's busy. "Oh. Is she volunteering tonight?" He hesitates just slightly. "Yeah. She's at the hospital." She's at home, dodging my calls.

Tuesday

Bella manages to look right past me as she asks what she should get Alice for her birthday. Her face is turned in my general direction, but the focus of her gaze is somewhere over my left shoulder, looking out the window. I lean over to be in her line of sight and she looks down at her book instead. "Anything Harry Potter related would be a hit." Bella hums in mild agreement. "Mom will be happy to see you. She was asking last night why you haven't been around lately." "It's been busy." "Been gearing up for the pig project?" "Ugh, don't remind me." Bella folds her arms on the lab table and lays her head on them, shutting herself away. "Are you not feeling well?" I put a hand on her back and she flinches away. She really looks at me for the first time in days ­ to glare at me. I take my hand off her and murmur 'sorry.' We don't talk for the rest of the period. Alice makes me a milkshake without me having to ask. She has a good sense for when I'm feeling like shit. "Bad day?" Dad asks when he sees me nursing the milkshake and watching Harry Potter with Alice. 111

Dad's not great with the emotional stuff. That's more Mom's area. Dad is good for injuries, business advice, and grand philosophical questions about the nature of the universe. If I told him that my only friend, who, coincidentally, is also the girl I'm crushing on, is mad at me and has been for days, he'd stare at me like I'd ceased to speak English and maybe tell me to keep my chin up. So I divert the subject. "I have to dissect a fetal pig in biology tomorrow." He smiles fondly. "Ah, I remember those days. I had to spend a year dissecting a human cadaver in Anatomy class." "That's really comforting, Dad." "I named mine George." He chuckles at some memory and asks Alice and I if we want pancakes. We both say no but Emmett shouts a resounding "YES!" from the second floor. I think that boy eats his own bodyweight in food every day. "Cheer up," Alice says as Dad walks away to make pancakes. She tugs on my ear and I tell her to knock it off. "Not until you smile." She tugs on my earlobe again with a giggle. When she was a baby she had this weird thing about sucking on my ears ­ just mine, Emmett's wouldn't do. She wouldn't take a soother, but she'd willingly follow me around, arms locked around my head, gumming my ears. I was so young myself that I just took her abuse as normal. Mom tried to put Alice off the habit when my ears started to chap from being slobbered on all the time, and Alice was teething so I had little bite marks on my ears too. I had to wear a hat with earflaps until she kicked the habit. I looked like such a dweeb, wearing a flap hat in summer. "Well cheer me up, then," I complain. I pull my hat down over my ears to keep her from teasing them. "Want to tell me what happened at school today?" She tactfully mutes the movie, which is a big deal for her because she's usually incapable of turning her attention away from the screen for even a nanosecond while this is on. "No." "Was it Bella?" I suck back more milkshake instead of answering and Alice sits up so fast she almost falls off the couch. "She's still coming on Friday, right?" "Yeah, she asked me what to get you for your birthday." "That was sweet of her. So come on, did you guys fight or something? Or was it a stupid spat like the Uncle Fester thing?" "She just hasn't been in a talking mood lately." Alice shrugs at that. "Give her space. She'll be fine." And I would, but I'm paranoid. By the time I retreat to my room to escape the smell of burnt pancakes (way to go, Dad), I'm thinking about this weekend. Bella has been hanging out a lot with other friends lately. Maybe she was distancing herself before I even knew it. It's physically painful to think that she might be giving into peer pressure. She might be permanently ditching me. She might be consciously and deliberately cutting me out of her life, and not bit-by-bit so I have time to land on my feet, but all at once ­ cold turkey with no notice. I get up and turn on my stereo. I play the angriest CD I own at top volume. It doesn't help. I try to vent into my piano, which usually cures all, but it doesn't. Fucking everything reminds me of her. She's in every room of this house ­ in my very own bed, where she comforted me; at my piano where we played Bach; in the kitchen where she neatly insinuated herself into the fold of my mother's society and Alice's confidence; in the library where she gushed over Shakespeare. There is absolutely nothing I can do and not think of her. 112

I fucking hate her. And I want to fall on my knees and beg her to keep me around. At six I have to head over to the dialysis clinic for my weekly appointment. I bring a book for the long wait, but I don't feel much like reading. I just sit there and stare at the page and wonder what Bella is doing right now. I think about calling or texting her, but the nurses are Nazis about cell phone use in the hospital. Maybe I'll get lucky and Bella will be volunteering tonight. Or maybe that's no luck at all ­ maybe she won't look at me even if we do bump into each other. Maybe she'll pretend not to know me, like I'm just another patient. Or, worst of all, seeing me hooked up to a machine might remind her of why she's dodging me to begin with. If I met me I wouldn't be friends with me. I'm a drag to be around, always tired or sick or cranky. Whoever I hang out with will get stared at because I'm with them. People feel the need to watch what they say around me, like the casual hyperbole "It was so funny I almost died" might offend me. Bella isn't one of those people ­ or at least she wasn't. Keeping her other friends is probably more important to her than keeping my pathetic ass around, and it's no secret that the other kids in her clique don't like me. I can't control how people see me, but I can control what they think of me as a person by being friendly, and I don't even do that well. That's why Bella's friends can't get over the fact that I look diseased ­ I'm too standoffish. But with Bella I figured things were different, because nastiness was the status quo and she said it fucked up the whole dynamic of the friendship when I was nice. I took that as license to unload who I really was instead of hiding behind a veneer of happiness that I didn't really feel. I could be myself around her. But that shit gets old. She's done with me. She's moving on to normal friends. I lay my book on my lap and hang my head in my hands. This shouldn't hurt so fucking much. I got along just fine without her for six months. I was doing ok before she showed up. The fact that I'm addicted to her company is embarrassing. Could she really never look at me again? It's not like she even likes you back. Parting is easy for her. She barely knows you. Do you really know her? She was only hanging out with you because she felt sorry for you. Pity only goes so far. And you are pitiful. Seriously, what did you think you had to offer her that would tempt her to put up with your sorry ass? By the time I get home my stomach is twisted into painful knots. Figures, my body can't even get heartache right. I call Bella again, but she doesn't answer. Alice tries to comfort me, but I'm not in the mood. So she just returns three of my CDs ­ all taken without permission ­ and leaves me to myself. I take a hefty dose of Benadryl to crash; awful, I know, considering I just came back from getting my blood cleansed of toxins. It knocks me out, and the deep sleep after dialysis takes me too far under to even dream. I wake up in a cold sweat. I look around, alarmed, for what woke me up. Was it the feeling of being watched? Did Mom come in again to watch me and ease her insomnia? But I'm alone in the room. I kick off my blankets, suddenly restless. It's three-o-clock in the morning and I'm horny as hell. I don't even bother to get out of bed. The simple act of rolling over to grab the Kleenex box is a difficult one to wrap my head around as I push my sweatpants down. I'm still dozy with Benadryl and the drive to come as fast as possible is the only conscious thought I am capable of. My hands move to no effect. There's stimulation, but no build. I move my hand harder, faster, trying everything to make my body cooperate with my urge to achieve release. I even bring in the 113

image of the petite brunette, but skilful as she is ­ and is she ever ­ I can't coax my body into submission. I'm just about to give up when a painful spasm creeps up the back of my spine and I arch involuntarily. I fall back onto my pillow with the eye-watering pain in my abdomen that feels just like last time; like someone has cut through my pelvic muscles with a hot serrated knife. I bite the pillow to keep quiet and curl around my sore center. Why did you even bother? It takes ten long minutes for the pain to fade this time ­ way longer than it did in the shower. When I can move again I reach for the Kleenex to clean myself up, but realize there's nothing to clean. I even turn on the lamp and stand up to inspect my clothes and the bed. Nothing. I didn't even ejaculate this time. I crawl back into bed, more defeated than I've felt in awhile, and bury my head in the pillow. What if this problem never goes away? What if I can never get off again? What if I can't ever have sex because of this? That would really scare a girl off ­ a guy who screams in agony and has to lay in the fetal position for ten minutes every time he nearly-comes. My sleep is restless for the remainder of the night, and I get up with sore joints and a pounding head. Bloody hell, I have to dissect a pig today.

Wednesday

I've been out of bed for exactly thirty seconds and my day has already gone to shit. My piss is cloudy. I don't have an infection and it doesn't hurt to pee, which leaves one obvious solution: retrograde ejaculation. Fuck. Do you know who does that? Paraplegics and old guys with no bladder control left, that's who. I'm supposed to be in recovery and my body just keeps finding new ways to betray me. I try to rub one out in the shower in a bizarre attempt to power-trip on my own body; show it who's boss, and all. I can't even get hard enough to call it a semi. Fuck me; I think I'll just crawl back into bed. We're a little early for school. Alice insisted on leaving early so she "could drop something off at the social planner's office." But that's probably total bullshit, considering that the basketball team had a seven a.m. practice, and she's still pining for that guy who's no good for her. I don't want to go into the school yet. I have no one to hang out with and chat to before class, and standing around like a loner is tough on the ego. So I lie down on the backseat and try to get an extra fifteen minutes of sleep before going in for first period. Then I hear the telltale rumbling of a forty year old engine and sit bolt upright. Bella is early too. I get out of the car and head toward her truck. Bella is still sitting in the front seat, holding a notebook up against the steering wheel. She must have some last minute homework to finish. I open the driver's side door and say hello. Bella's speakers are playing "Can't Get No Satisfaction" by the Stones at a low volume. She's listening to the soundtrack of my night. "Morning." She looks at me like she can't believe I have the nerve to talk to her, and then at my hand where it rests on the edge of her car door. "Uh, I guess you want to be left alone?" "What do you want?" She's doing that thing again - the thing that makes me feel very small and insignificant and helplessly in the wrong. 114

"Just to see how you are." "I've gotta finish this." She gestures to her homework and closes the car door firmly. I just stand there, like the idiot I am, watching her work while she doesn't even spare me a glance. How can she just blow me off like that? I have the sudden urge to pound on her window and ask her what the fuck is up her ass, but that would only worsen her mood. I shove my hands in my pockets and head inside. She's not just being cold and ignoring anymore ­ she's being downright mean about it. The school board's idea of protecting us from formaldehyde is to give us latex gloves and little blue surgical masks that do nothing to block out the fumes. All the windows in the biology lab are wide open to vent the awful smell, which means the room is cold as well as foul. Mr. Banner 'jokingly' places buckets around the room in case anyone has a weak stomach. Bella looks absolutely green, and we haven't even taken our pig out of the bag yet. Her hands are shaking so bad she can hardly get her gloves on. When I reach over to help her she actually lets me. Her hands are so clammy that the gloves stick to them. "I'll come around to make sure you've trussed your specimen correctly," Mr. Banner announces. "Get the limbs splayed as far apart as you can. Don't be afraid of cracks or pops ­ it can't feel anything anymore." Bella sways a little and grabs onto the lab table. I take the pig out of its container and set it on the tray, face-up. This thing has eyelashes. The formaldehyde has curled its little ears and its tongue is swollen beyond its lips, poking past a tidy row of tiny teeth. The hooves stick up in the air like the legs on a dead beetle. "Shall we?" I hold the trussing string out to Bella. All she has to do it loop it around the pig's wrists and the bottom of the tray ­ I'll do the bone breaking. It takes us five minutes to get the pig trussed and centered, and then Bella has to take up the scalpel and lead phases one through three. The blades they give us are dull as shit, and she has to really saw at the pig to make an H-shaped incision along its front. One cut across its neck, like a smile. One down its front, like a zipper. And the third across its hips, mirroring the one at its neck. We peel back the skin and I thought it was impossible for the smell to get any worse, but it does. Fluid leaks out of the abdomen in a gush. Bella's eyelids flutter like she's going to pass out. I grab her arm and jostle her a little to keep her conscious. It's all I can do not to puke. "Just get it done," I say through my teeth. The faster we finish this, the faster we can leave it behind. Lauren Mallory starts dry heaving on the other side of the room, and the sound gets a few other people going. Bella picks up a pencil and begins to diagram the lungs with a shaky hand. She has to remove them to expose the heart, and follow the major veins and arteries down to the kidneys, which she has to find by removing the stomach and liver ­ which is fucking huge for such a small animal. She drops the liver on the tray and I pick it up curiously. It's sickly purple and has the consistency of a marshmallow. "Put that down," Bella hisses at me as I pry the lobes apart curiously. She finds the kidneys, diagrams the intestines and bladder, and then hands the lab forms over to me like they're a relay baton that she can't wait to get rid of. Welcome to phase four. We just had to get a male pig, didn't we? The instructional diagrams on Mr. Banner's lab sheet are painful enough to look at, never mind perform. I run the scalpel down the middle of this poor bastard's scrotum. "You have to press harder," Bella says. "Like you're an expert in cutting pig's balls off." I run the blade along the desired cut line again, but I don't puncture the skin deep enough. "The blade is dull." Bella puts her hand over mine and forces pressure through the scalpel. The pig's 115

scrotum is neatly divided in two, and I swear to God I felt that. "Just get it done," she sends my own words back at me. They aren't nearly as encouraging as I'd intended them to be. So I cut the pig's penis open, expose the pelvic muscles and prostate, bladder neck, etc., and manage to do it all without puking. The sympathy pain in my groin is more noticeable than the urge to gag. I'm all too happy to untruss the pig when it's done and flip it over onto its stomach. I don't want to look at its mutilated junk again. The brain is supposed to come out in three simple steps: Cut the scalp off, saw away the top of the skull bone and membranes, and lift the organ out. The scalp is mushier than the abdominal skin was, because Bella and I managed to bruise its head while dissecting its underbelly. I toss the little flap of scalp skin aside with the liver and lungs and begin work on the white bone. Bone is surprisingly tough ­ and wet. It makes sickly popping sounds, like gunshots underwater, as I break it away bit by bit. Bella has to sit down on the nearest stool and put her head between her knees. "Huh. It's yellow." I tilt the pig's head so she can see the top of the brain. It's the color of mustard with green lines around the clefts and gyri. I poke it and find it has the consistency of toothpaste. And it leaks ­ a lot. "Will you just cut the damn thing out?" Bella snaps at me. It takes longer to get the brain out of its nest than it did to open the skull. I lose part of the occipital lobe in the attempt, but save the pieces. Altogether, the little brain is surprisingly heavy in my palm. I can't believe people eat this shit. Bella stands up and puts her hands on the pig's neck and rump, breaking off my train of thought about the pig brain. "Come on, cut it," she says. She holds the skin over the spine taught so I can expose the whole thing at once. The spine looks like a badly organized circuit board. Nerves of varying thicknesses run into the gaps in the bone and spider-web out into the surrounding organs. Bella lets go of the pig and the spine twists in a sickening way, slumping down into the tray. It doesn't even resemble a pig anymore. Its eyes are out of place from where I removed its brain, and there's little left on the other side of the exposed spine to fill an abdomen. Bella raises her hand to tell Mr. Banner that we're done. He takes our forms, shows us where to deposit the carcass ­ his word, not mine ­ and lets us leave ten minutes before the bell. "That wasn't so bad," I say to Bella as we head down the empty hallway. "Let us never speak of this again," is her only reply. She doesn't even look at me. I try to walk with her a ways, maybe to her next class, to talk to her along the way. But she goes directly to the girls' bathroom, and doesn't come out before I have to leave for English. She's avoiding me. "Dude, you fucking reek," Emmett complains when I slide into the backseat. "It's dead pig and formaldehyde," I tell him. Alice puts the collar of her sweater over her mouth and nose and Emmett rolls down all the windows, even though it's drizzling. I take the hint and shower as soon as I get home. I put today's clothes in the washer on the heaviest wash cycle available ­ twice. "I used to have to bleach my clothes after anatomy classes," Dad says fondly. "My jeans were down to threads by the end of the semester." Alice pleads for no more talk of cutting up dead things and offers me a milkshake to never tell her the details of the pig dissection. And so my night turns around: in sweats by five, sitting down to a milkshake and bowl of homemade soup for a snack. "Why don't you invite Bella over for dinner?" Mom says. "I'm sure it's been a trying day for her 116

too." "I'll call her." And just like that, my day is shit again. I call Bella's cell and house lines, but she won't answer either one. I tell Mom that she's busy tonight. By her worried expression, I get the sense that she doesn't entirely believe me. Bella's absence has been noted.

Thursday

My alarm clock goes off too fucking early. Before I even open my eyes or roll over to switch it off, three thoughts surface from beneath the haze of sleep: It's Thursday. It's a school day. I can't do this. I roll over and shut off my alarm. My day hasn't even started and I feel completely, utterly defeated. Why should I bother to get up and go to school? No one there cares that I even exist. The pig project is over, so my absence wouldn't leave Bella high and dry with a corpse to butcher. I don't feel like eating. I don't feel like doing anything. I spend five whole minutes debating whether it's worth it just to get up to pee. Mom pokes her head in and tells me to get a move on. "I'm not going in today." "Why not?" She steps into my room and puts a hand on my forehead. I'm not sick. Not in that way, at least. "I'm not up to it." She studies me for a moment, and it looks like she's about to say something when she turns and leaves without a word. She comes back a minute later with a glass of water and a reminder to take my meds. "I'll call the school and tell them you won't be in." "Thanks, Mom." When she leaves I burrow deeper into my blankets and go back to sleep. It's about as numb as I can get without a morphine drip. Tom Petty wakes me up. The fuck? I lift my head ­ the clock says it's ten-thirty ­ and look over my shoulder at my speaker setup. The thing doesn't just turn on by itself. There's a blonde standing by my stereo, dancing unabashedly. She hasn't changed a bit, except for the streak of electric blue dye in her hair. It matches the bullring in her nose and the stud in her eyebrow. Kate catches my eye and smiles. "Hey slut." She takes a run at the bed and leaps toward me. She lands above me on all fours with a wicked grin on her face. "Check it out." She sticks her tongue out to show me a new piercing. I'm not surprised. Kate's primary motivation for most things is "because it would piss my dad off." "I'm thinking of getting my lip done too." She kisses my forehead - fuck, I'm not wearing a hat and then sits back on her heels, balancing above my waist. I'm so thin that there's actually room between her crouch and my stomach. "Good idea. Your dad'll have a stroke." I sit up on my elbows. "What are you doing here?" "Nice to see you too, bitch." She teasingly brushes her hand across my face in an approximation of a slap and gets off the bed. "Your mom called me this morning. She wanted me to call you and cheer you up or some shit. But this is better, even if it is a long-ass drive." "It's a school day." "A what?" She blinks at me. "Fuck that. You're my excuse to get out of PE." Kate pulls back my blanket and waves me up. "Come on, get up. Tanya said you were getting your energy back. We're doing shit today." 117

"She said stuff about me?" I swing my legs out of bed, but stop there. I'm dreading her answer. If it's bad I'll just crawl back into bed and bury my head in the sand. "Not 'said' exactly." Kate goes to my drawers and starts rifling through them. She throws articles of clothing at me as she finds them ­ socks, underwear, shirt, sweatpants. Then she opens the drawer I keep my toques in and throws her hands up. "Dude, it looks like a yarn factory threw up in here." "Just tell me what she said." Kate huffs "Irina wanted to know how her weekend was and before Tanya even said anything she started bawling like a fucking baby." Kate slams the drawer and makes a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. "She can be such a whiney little Jew sometimes." "I'm telling her you said that." "Speaking of--" Kate whirls on me. "How come you invited her for Easter and not me?" "It was Mom's idea." Mom likes Kate, but only in small doses. She couldn't do an entire weekend with her as a guest. Kate has a mouth like a trucker, no sense of appropriate timing, and no verbal filter on her thoughts. She can be fucking hilarious or embarrassing as all hell. "So what is there to do in this town?" "Nothing." "Come on, there's gotta be something." "Nope. It's Forks." "Don't kids usually go cow-tipping or something in small towns?" That makes me laugh. "Not a lot of cows in Forks. It's a logging town, genius." Kate heaves a long-suffering sigh. She's a city girl to the core. "I brought Shelby with me in case you weren't up to going out. But since there's nothing to go out and do..." Shelby is Kate's violin. She plays nearly as seriously as I do piano. We weren't even really friends until we were in the same music classes. I think I can stand a day at the piano. "Bring her in." It's been awhile since Kate played classical. She isn't signed up for music at school this semester, and if the school or music camps aren't forcing her to play classical, she attaches an amp to her violin and creates her own sound. This past year she's been flirting with death metal. If I'd seen her band play before I knew her, I'd have totally stalked her. "You are such a goody-fucking-two-shoes," Kate complains as she rifles through my sheet music, looking for something worth playing. My collection is entirely classical. I did aspire to play professionally, after all. "Just pick one." Kate pulls a blue folio out of the stack and smirks. "Okay, you're taste isn't totally pathetic." She pulls out the sheet music and slaps Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Prelude in G Major down on the music stand. Fucking kill me. "I'm sick of Bach." "Well you're short on Apocalyptica, so this'll have to do," Kate says. She tests the tune of her instrument before launching into the opening bars without me. "Kate." She stops and looks at me archly. "It's this or cow-tipping." God damn it, why couldn't she have just called, like Mom asked her to? I turn to the keyboard and shift reluctantly through the notes. It's like walking, just one key after the other. Keep moving, because it hurts too fucking much to stay put. It's the illusion that I'm going somewhere, or going away from something. I'm moving, so I must be alive. I can't die, because music isn't really alive. It's an equation. A sensation. A fleeting thought that runs 118

through your head too fast to be heard. An idea that lingers and drives you insane until you have to play it. To move is to blur the line between self and song. Bella likes this song. She hates me, but she likes this. Bella falls asleep to this song. I wonder if she ever thinks of the time we played it together. Does she ever think of me at all without disgust? I bet her other friends keep her too busy to spare me much thought. It's not like I have anything to offer that she would miss. The faster I play the faster it will end and I can get her out of my head. Yeah right. Kate lowers her bow and flicks my ear. "Stop fucking up the tempo." "Sorry." We start again from the beginning. So much for getting this over faster. But this is supposed to be a light, mellow song. To adjust its speed is to corrupt its tone. I block out the thoughts of Bella and the aches in my joints and the niggling hunger in my stomach, and just listen to it. I haven't played like this in ages. It's effortless, weightless. It fucking breathes. Time becomes irrelevant and the room could go up in flames without my noticing. When I run out of notes to play I'm not quite sure what to do. My hand lingers on the final key, drawing out the note unnecessarily. Kate gets fed up with the pointless noise and grabs me by the wrist to lift my hand away. That's when we both notice that my hands are shaking. I curl my fingers into fists to make it stop, but the tremor only gets worse. It's hard to get a good breath. "Jesus, boy," Kate says, and grabs my hands. She turns me away from the keyboard and forces me to put my head between my knees. "You okay? "Yeah. Sorry. Just...got a little lost." She knows what I mean, the way music can transport you to such an other place. Down the rabbit hole, with no clear way of how to get back when the song ends. "You, my friend," she says, "are more messed up than I first fucking suspected." I hang my head. That is such a Kate thing to say. What's weird is that I know exactly what she means by it, and it isn't cruel. Kate crouches down in front of me to be on eye-level. "Who is she?" "Who?" "It's always a girl." "What's always a girl?" I pull my hands away and sit up. "There are times," Kate says seriously, pointing a finger at me, "that you get this look on your face. It's like your making love to the goddamned piano, and I know it's the doing of some chick you're all lovesick and blue-balled about." She smirks and shakes her head. "You're really quite a musical pervert." "This coming from the girl who lines her violin case with Georgia O'Keefe prints?" "You were fingering the shit out of that piano." "I was not." Kate presses the nearest key she can reach, keening in time with it. Her voice pitches up with each key press and she sets an almost frantic tempo. She makes my piano sound like a girl about to come. "Damn it." I grab her hand off the keyboard and she laughs at me. "It's really cruel to tease her like that," Kate informs me seriously. "It didn't even look like she came when you were giving her Bach." "I can't do this." I pack up the sheet music and close the key cover. That's quite enough of music and my playing habits for one day. Kate quickly resumes her original plan. "Let's go out." Kate's car is a lemon yellow Gremlin that she won off her brother. Well, it's mostly yellow, in 119

between the rust spots. He bet this piece of shit on a football game and she took him up on it. And Kate loves this car, even though it's fuck ugly, falling apart, and can barely pass emissions testing. We have no idea where we're going when we pull out of the driveway. There's nothing to do, so we'll just drive around "until we find trouble," as Kate so touchingly puts it. She turns on the radio and searches for a station with good reception. She settles on an obscure AM station without too much static. They're broadcasting "Cecelia." Kate turns it up and sings along. I change the station. "My car, my music." She changes it back. "I hate this song." "Nobody hates this song." "I do." "I can see broken-hearted depressives hating it, but come on. It's a great song." I don't say anything. We travel a few more miles in silence, listening to this annoying song. When it ends Kate switches the radio off entirely and asks, "Who?" "What?" "Who broke your heart?" "No one." "Give me a fucking name so I have an excuse to crack her skull." "Kate," I complain. I don't need to involve her in this. She smiles with surprise. "It's not a she?" Typical Kate. She lives in fear of being stereotyped as "the gay friend," even though she plays both sides. "I'm not gay." Though it's the second time in two weeks that I've been asked. "And I'm not seeing anyone, and haven't been since I moved here. No broken heart, so lose that theory, okay?" Kate mulls that over for a few seconds. "Yeah, bullshit." "It's not bullshit." "Tanya didn't mention anything about a girlfriend, but she's always been such a spazz around you that it's no wonder she'd leave out that little detail. So come on, who is she?" "No one." I need to change the subject before Kate really gets pushy. "Are you still with that guy? The dipshit with the ponytail and the GreenPeace shirt?" "Garrett? Eh." Kate shrugs. "He's a little political. Keeps blowing me off to do important shit like protest for PETA. Fuck'm." "Good." I never particularly liked him. He was always pushing some agenda. I wonder if he's ever had an original thought, because all I've ever heard from him are the platitudes and PR bullshit that he gets from environmental groups. "So who's the girl?" "God damn it, Kate, I said there is no girl." "I'll ask Alice. She'll blab." Fuck. She's right. Alice will talk about anything with minimal prompting. "She's just a friend." Kate laughs, gleeful that I've given in. "A fuck-friend? Or a friend you want to fuck?" "Neither." "I watched you do her in your head while playing Bach." "Kate," I complain. Worse than being caught at it is the way she describes it. "Does she like you back?" "No." "Why the fuck not? You're adorable." Kate reaches over and taps my nose. Great. Because every guy aspires to be 'adorable.' Nobody wants to date guys like that. They're the poor schmucks that 120

continually get sorted under 'friend.' "I pissed her off." "That is a habit of yours." "Shut up." "Remember -" "No." "Or -" "No." "And the time that -" "No!" Kate blows a raspberry at me. "When are you going to learn to stop pissing off the girls you want? This is so fourth grade." "It's more complicated than that." "You're a guy. How complicated can it be?" I end up telling her the whole story in all its pathetic detail. How I hated her guts at first, but was too lonely to pass up trading insults with her. How she made me soup and slowly brought me around to thinking that she was a nice person, she just had a short temper and a lot of anger. How she was nice to me and invited me places and my family liked her. I even tell her about the music late at night and how I can't sleep if I don't talk to her first. "Fucking hell, you've got it bad," Kate says with an appreciative chuckle. "She hates my guts right now." "Of course she does. You're a chronic fuck-up." "I told you this was different." "How?" "We usually do stuff on Saturdays. She made plans last week and didn't tell me, and I snapped on her for blowing me off." "That doesn't mean she hates you. She's just sore about it. Girls hold grudges like that." "I apologized for snapping on her. She won't even look at me." "Did she apologize for blowing you off?" "We didn't exactly have firm plans..." "So which is it? She blew you off or she didn't?" "It's complicated." Kate rolls her eyes. "Your life is fucked, my friend." We stop near one of the rocky beaches and sit on the hood of the car, watching the waves and clouds roll in. First Beach is better. I describe it to Kate, and tell her about the bonfire after the school dance. She thinks it's hilarious that a school dance is the highlight of the social calendar here. I'm not mad at Bella because she didn't include me in last weekend's plans. I can't change the past, so it's useless to dwell on a weekend with her that I'll never get back. She probably did have a full car, considering how many friends she has on the res. That is why I resent her ­ she has people she can be with. I only have two, and one is my little sister. "This bullshit has changed you," Kate says, and rubs my head. I think she means my cancer. "You've gotten used to being taken care of. You used to be so full of initiative." "You're so full of shit. I am not used to being taken care of." "Yeah you are. It's to be expected, I guess, after all that time in the hospital, and your mom looking after you, and Alice." "It's not like that. You have no idea ­ we haven't seen each other since last June." 121

"That's a lot to put on a girl. I assume you've been chasing her, since you've already fucked up, and probably not by accident." "I'm not chasing her. I know it's not fair to her." It wouldn't be fair to put any girl to the choice of being with me, and I couldn't stand the humiliation of having her say no. "Maybe when you recover a little more." "This whole thing will blow over by then. It's just a stupid crush." Kate laughs out loud like she's just heard the funniest joke in the world. "No fucking way that is a crush," she cackles. "Shut up. You know jack shit, all right?" "When you have a crush on someone you're infatuated ­ you see all the person's good traits but none of their flaws. You like the idea of the person more than the actual person. This chick is different ­ you notice everything about her, including the unpleasant shit." Kate playfully nudges my shoulder. "You love her." "I do not." "Have you written her a song yet? That's always your go-to when you're really into a girl." "I haven't written her a song, damn it." Well, it's not finished, anyway. The bridge still needs work and I need a solid ending. But that does not mean I love her. I just like to...y'know, do her in my head and think about her all the fucking time and orchestrate little gestures to make her smile. "Do you ever meet a person and swear you can hear, like, theme music around them? Like they have their own special tune?" Kate says. "You have?" "You sound like Hadyn's Pereira." Typical Kate. "You're cheating on Garrett with a cellist, aren't you?" "That is entirely, completely...beside the point." I snicker and she punches my shoulder. Not as hard as she used to, because I look breakable now, but hard enough to let me know she's pissed off. "Is your girl into music?" "Yeah, but she doesn't play." "Well that's a fucking shame," Kate says like she genuinely means it. Kate has limited respect for people who don't understand music or lead a creative lifestyle. The wind is starting to pick up along the beach. Rain will inevitably follow, so I suggest we go home. There really is nothing to do in Forks, after all. On the drive home Kate tells me about her plans to go back to music camp for another crack at some scholarship money. Hearing about her plans, and being excited with her, is almost enough to make me forget about Bella. Almost. When Alice and Emmett get home from school, she sees Kate's car in the driveway and comes tearing up the stairs with the force of a small tornado, chanting "Kate! Kate!" in a voice that could strip wallpaper. She bursts into my room and throws herself on Kate. "My little whore," Kate greets her warmly. Alice beams like that's a glowing compliment. "You been using that trick I taught you?" Oh God, what trick? Alice nods like her head is on a fucking spring. "When did you get here? How long are you staying?" Kate laughs at Alice's enthusiasm. "I got here this morning." "You've been here all freakin' day and didn't tell me?" Alice stamps her foot. "I had to cheer this twat up," Kate says of me, and rubs my head roughly. "I can't stay much longer. Gotta get back to the city." Mom calls up the stairs to Alice and she drags her feet along the carpet with a huff. "Coming!" She 122

points a finger at Kate. "And don't you dare leave without saying goodbye." "I won't," Kate promises. The second Alice is out of earshot she turns to me and says, "Dude, your sister turned hot." "Don't you fucking dare." Kate leaves around four-o-clock to be back in Seattle by seven. After Alice squeezes the hell out of her, we hug goodbye on the porch and she claps me on the shoulder. "I'll see you soon. Try not to suck too much cock before then." "Try not to fuck another drummer out of your band." Kate makes a throaty moan of appreciation. "Fuck that. Drummers are too fucking hot to preserve my integrity around." "Your what?" Kate descends the porch steps and waves over her shoulder. "Later, slut." She's just about to get in her car when she stops and yells across the lawn at me: "And finish that song you were writing for her!" Goddamn Kate and her musical intuition. You should finish it. What's the point? It'll stick in your head until you finish it. I'll come back to it later, when I'm over this. You'll have no drive to finish it, then. I stare at the piano keys in front of me, debating. The notebook I used to compose Bella's song sits on the music stand, waiting to be filled. The song is maybe three-quarters done. It's a lullaby, inspired by the nights we spent falling asleep to music. And it's...her flavor. Her theme song, as Kate would call it. The arrangement reminds me of her. I was going to give it to her when it was finished, but now... I don't know what will ever become of it. If I were being honest, I'd admit that I didn't compose it entirely for her; I selfishly wanted to be the last thing on her mind when she fell asleep. Just fucking finish it. I play through the parts that are already composed, making small adjustments as I go along. The bridge feels completely wrong, so I scrap it altogether and start from scratch. Keep it simple ­ as simple as a plain, petite brunette falling asleep in that narrow twin bed; as simple as knowing what will make her smile and what will unleash the anger she keeps in abundance below the surface. The bridge comes together slowly, laboriously, and when it's right I realize that I had the ending all wrong. This lullaby doesn't have a happy ending. The girl in the bed falls asleep alone. The music surrounds her, but it doesn't touch her. It doesn't reach her in her dreams. It doesn't calm her. The notes are like prayers to a deaf god. As the song drifts sadly to its natural close, Mom wraps her arms around my shoulders in a loose hug. "It's good to hear you composing again," she says, and kisses the top of my head. I lift my arms back and wrap them around her in an awkward hug. "Thanks, Mom." "Does it have a name?" "No. Not yet." "It's beautiful. You put such heart into it." She has no idea.

123

Friday

It's Alice's birthday party tonight. Mom and Dad will be out of the house for the evening, in what I think is a remarkable display of trust, and Emmett and I will be "supervising" the party. Nonetheless, Mom and Dad aren't idiots. Mom locks her office, Dad hides the box of cigars he normally keeps on the mantle, and they lock the liquor cabinet and place a fire extinguisher on the kitchen counter "because accidents happen." Mom is a hippie with more college stories than she cares to divulge, so it's Dad that reads us the riot act before they leave: no smoking, drinking, nudity, drugs or "ingenious" pranks while they're gone. Emmett asks for a full breakdown of what falls under the ban of "ingenious pranks." And it's quite a long list. Dad is just getting to the part about no water balloons in the house when Mom comes in with her purse, ready to leave, and says, "I'm not condoning anything, but if circumstances require it, there are condoms in the bathroom cabinet." Excuse me while I go hang myself. I'm putting chips into serving bowls when Alice comes downstairs, dressed up for the party. She has on this black knee-length dress with lace in layers around the skirt and along the collar. She makes a lot of own clothes, and this dress must have taken her weeks. It's extremely detailed and fits perfectly. She's sculpted her hair into loose ringlets, made her eyes dark and smoky, and donned a red beret that slouches over her left ear. She looks like the other woman in a 1950's movie; dangerous and beautiful and charming. "You look good." She giggles with delight and the image is broken. She's still my little Alice, even if that dress does make her boobs look...there. "I'm gonna go start the music." She begins to skip away, and then remembers that she's dressed nicely, and puts on a flirty little swagger instead. Where the hell did she learn to do that? Emmett and I are still setting up in the kitchen when the first of Alice's guests arrive. Figures Charlotte would be the first to show up. She squeals over Alice's outfit and then they start to whisper frantically in the foyer. What the hell are they planning? Emmett breaks me out of my reverie by loudly dumping a bin of ice cubes into the sink. We fill the sink with ice and soda, guestimating how much we'll need. Alice invited about twenty people. Some of those might bring unexpected dates. This house could get pretty crowded by the end of the night. The guests arrive in twos and threes, in the carpooling nature of teenagers. Some I recognize from the social planning committee, or from clubs and teams at school. Alice is quite the social butterfly, after all. By eleven the party is in full swing. I hang back a little, drifting from room to room. No one talks to me and they avert their eyes when I pass by. I bet if this wasn't my house they'd be whispering, "Who invited him?" Out on the porch, I notice Charlotte flirting with a tall, dark-haired guy who looks too old for her. It takes me a few seconds to place his face: he's on the basketball team. What the fuck is with these girls? Is it some sort of fad to date a basketball player this week? I go to the kitchen for another ginger ale. As I cross the front hall the door opens and another cluster of guests welcome themselves in and Fuck. It's. Him. I didn't think he'd actually show. I mean, a party is a party, but what self-respecting senior has the time of day for a pipsqueak like Alice? Speaking of Alice, she's doomed. The chick this asshole brought with him turns more heads in three seconds than any other girl has all night. She's sexy. She's dark. She's charismatic. The only justice in 124

this world would be if she were as dumb as a rock. Alice comes dancing across the house to greet this particular guest. He tells her happy birthday and gives her a one-armed hug ­ his girlfriend is holding his other hand. "I'm glad you could make it." Alice surprises me by giving Maria a hug too. Either she's a better person than I thought, or she is way better at this game than I first suspected. Again, who the hell taught her to do that? The happy couple gives Alice a CD wrapped in yellow paper. She opens it in front of them and seems genuinely excited about the gift. When she tilts the case I can see the cover art ­ it's a Kimya Dawson CD. "Just your taste," I say. Alice looks over her shoulder and jumps a little when she sees how close I am. I know I'm thin, but for crying out loud, I've been standing right next to the stairs the whole time. "You guys know my brother, right?" she says to them. "Yeah, I know him. I'm Jasper -" I know who he is. He's the dickhead who has possessed my little sister. "- and this is Maria." He nods to his girlfriend, the girl who probably exists in voodoo doll form up in Alice's room. I complete my half of the introductions and walk away to the kitchen. People part in front of me like the waters of the Red Sea. Like I'm a leper and they'd better not get too close. By the time I get to the kitchen I can't remember why I wanted to come here. I clean a few empty cans off the counters and put more ice in the sink, but I'm just running on autopilot. There is no one here I want to talk to. No one here wants to talk to me. I wish they would all just leave. The sanctuary of my home, where no one stares anymore, has been ruined for tonight. I'm considering going into the living room to try to talk to my sister's friends from drama club when I hear Alice's distinct chirp: "Bella! What took you so long?" The universe narrows to a single fact: She's here, in my house. Then my focus broadens, and I remember that there are a lot of people in my house. People to see how even she won't give you the time of day anymore. To see you be well and truly ignored in your own home. And it'll be okay for everyone else to do the same. "Who've you brought with you?" Alice asks warmly. Oh God. Bella brought a guest? I don't even have to wonder who it is. I know. I slip away from the kitchen, down the hall to the laundry room. It's a cramped space, and all alone I wait and listen until I'm sure she's well within the house. The sound of her voice follows Alice to the kitchen, chatting happily. It seems Bella brought food as a hostess gift, because Alice tells her that whatever she brought looks really good and does it need to warm up in the oven first? I wonder if it's something I can eat... So not worth the humiliation to find out. I wait until their voices fade to leave my hiding spot. I head upstairs to my room and lock the door behind me. You are such a coward. It's for the best. She probably doesn't want to see you. I fall face down on my bed like a starfish and groan. That girl has an almost supernatural ability to reduce me to my absolute worst without lifting a finger. She's a natural at it. You'd think she'd been doing it for years. I'm gone for an hour before anyone notices. Alice knocks on my door and I tell her that I'm not feeling well. "I could send them all home if you need to rest," she offers. Because I want to ruin her sixteenth 125

birthday party on top of everything else I've cost her. "No, don't. Just let me stay up here awhile, and I'll come down again later." "Okay." She gives me a hug and a kiss and goes back down to her party. She looks so pretty tonight, dressed up and in her element, surrounded by people. What I'd give to keep her that way: small and happy and quirky as only Alice can be. I will never be able to pay her back for what she's given me. And she just keeps giving. No matter how bad it gets, or how much it costs her, she never hesitates, and no amount of red and yellow M&Ms or stuffed owls will make up for her fearlessness and dedication. That jackass better not break her heart. If he does it just proves what an asshole he is, because her heart is too big and too fierce to be broken easily. I wouldn't worry about it tonight. Emmett has his eye on her. I wonder if his left or right femur would snap more easily... Decisions, decisions. The first time my throat got too sore to even talk was during my initial rounds of radiation. Alice made me a chart with boxes to point to, each with a common phrase in it. She knew just what to put on it: the common things, of course, like, Drink please; Food please; I'd like to sit up; I'd like to lay down; etc. A box for each physical need. And right after that she put I need a hug, and I need a kiss. And most understandingly, the capped the list off with: I need to be alone. The stiff paper she wrote it on (and laminated, in case I puked or bled on it) is pretty worn around the edges now. It's been folded and marked on and caught in the car door and tacked to the wall beside my bed a couple times. I run my finger across the last option on the list. I need to be alone. I don't think that one is necessary anymore. I can't bear another day of isolation, of walking around like the ghost that everybody can see but pretends to ignore. I call Tanya. Bizarre impulse, I know, but I'm lonely and she knew me before I was hollowed out by disease. The phone rings three times before her mom answers, and when I ask for Tanya I'm told she's out with friends from school. "Okay. Thanks anyway." "Shall I tell her you called?" "No, it's ok. Don't bother." I say goodbye and toss the phone on my nightstand. It's childish and ridiculous, but it feels like Tanya abandoned me. I waste half an hour being mad at her, because it feels slightly more productive than being mad at myself, before I pick up the phone again and try my other friends. Carmen is grounded and can't come to the phone. Kate is out with Tanya tonight, according to her brother, and when I try her cell she doesn't answer. She probably lost it again. Kate is perpetually losing small objects. Irina actually answers her phone, but all I can hear is shitty techno playing in the background at top volume. She's out raving tonight. "Can you hear me?" She can't, so I ditch the effort and hang up. Fucking hell. The only good friend left to try is Eli, but he's unreachable at the best of times. He doesn't have a cell phone because "their radiation kills bees" and his house line is sketchy because his grandma forgets to pay the bill some months. Even if I can get through, I'd have to talk to Grandma May for twenty minutes first while she confuses me with her long-lost fuck up of a son, Richard. I'm so desperate I try anyway. All I get is an automated phone message from the provider saying that the line is not in service. With nothing to do and no one to do it with, I just lay back across the foot of my bed and stare at the ceiling. Music and the noise of the party come through the walls, invading my bubble of privacy. I know this song. I know Bella knows this song. I dare you to go a whole minute without thinking about her. 126

Fine. I can do that. Easy. My stomach growls in hunger. I wonder what Bella brought... Damn it! That wasn't even ten seconds. Shut up. Make me. I don't want to go downstairs to find food. I'm not that hungry; just peckish. I lay there at the foot of the bed, listening and brooding and wishing that one of my friends had answered their phone. I've passed out of their lives completely ­ I'm no longer around, and no longer worrying them with my illness. No need to spare any thought for Edward anymore. I'm still mad about it when I drift off to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. I don't sleep long before Alice wakes me up with a hand on my cheek. "W'time is it?" I try to stretch and then think better of it. My joints ache. "Almost four." She slips my hat off and sets it aside. I seem to be wrapped up in a blanket. I didn't fall asleep that way. "You never came down," she says sadly. "Stomachache." Alice nods acceptingly and gives me a hug. "Sorry you had to miss it." "Did you have a good time?" Alice grins. She pulls her hands in toward her chest and spins on one foot. It's such a romantically giddy move. "When he said happy birthday he gave me a hug and he smells so...ugh. If only they bottled that smell." "Gross, Al." She blows a raspberry at me. "Tell Charlotte about that shit, not me." "I'm going to bed." She pulls her beret off and stifles a yawn. "Goodnight." Alice bends over to give me a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for the blanket." "You already had it on." "Oh." Alice yawns again and shrugs in a dismissive sort of way. She calls goodnight over her shoulder as she leaves, shutting the door behind her. Did Bella...? Don't even think it. But-- Don't. Hell would freeze over. I find myself sniffing the corner of the blanket for traces of her scent, to prove that it's not just wishful thinking. Maybe she came up here looking for me. Maybe she wanted to talk ­ shit, and I missed her. Do I have to explain the concept of hell freezing over? Shut up. Quit sniffing the blanket, you're not a friggin' dog. She's starting to come around. Yes, joy ­ she took thirty seconds away from her time with him to bundle you up like an invalid. Emmett passes my door on his way to bed. He belches loudly and all at once I feel like an idiot. He probably covered me up. He must have come looking for me, wondering where the other 'supervisor' of this party was, and found me asleep. 127

I didn't think my night could get any worse, but it has. False hope stings like a motherfucker. Sleep is a long time coming.

128

12. April 2 to 8

Wednesday

I scrub my hands raw in the girls' bathroom after biology, and they still reek of dead pig. I make myself late to Gym in the attempt, too, but I can't call that an entirely wasted effort. Every time I get a whiff of myself I gag. The minute I get home I go up to the shower and scrub myself with antibacterial soap. I'm going to have to wash the clothes I wore today three times, at least. As I dry off, the phone rings and I check the caller ID. It's Edward. He's beginning to rival Mike Newton for persistence. I don't answer the call. I can't deal with him right now. He complains that I won't look at him, like he really wants to be seen. I have my doubts about that. And he never pauses to consider what it might cost me to look at him; that it might invite things I don't want or aren't ready for, or it might remind me of watching my grandmother's descent into convalescence. The thought brings back the memory of the day we watched Romeo and Juliet, and I saw the unassuming Oxycontin pills and turned into a pathetic puddle in front of him. Or that day in the shed when he asked me about suicide... That hurt more than he knew, because part of it was true. Grandma refused treatment after just two rounds of chemo. It wasn't working enough to save her, so she didn't put herself through any more of it. If she was going to die, she said she wasn't going to do it with the pain of poison and the taste of metal in her mouth. She checked into hospice pretty early, considering. She told me later that she did it because the administering of medication was controlled there. She couldn't kill herself at hospice - and she believed it was a sin. Pills were Edward's first choice, too - or they would have been, if he had ever come to that. Pills don't require much planning, see, and complex plans are difficult for a seriously ill person. All one needs is a room with a lock - most bathrooms have one - and a bottle of pills. Swallow, lie down on the floor to avoid alerting others with the sound of a crash, and wait for the bright light at the end of the tunnel. And he had access to sleeping pills; little chance of vomiting, like he would with Oxy - just a guarantee of respiratory and cardiac arrest as the depressant flowed through him. Not that he would have done it. I ponytail my wet hair, throw on jeans and a t-shirt, and head back out to my truck. I'm scheduled to volunteer tonight, and though I'd rather just stay in and be by myself, I can't shirk a commitment like that. It's nice to feel needed, even though I just hand out magazines and read to kids. It keeps me together. Sort of. Volunteer work is a challenge today. The coordinator puts me in the oncology ward, handing out chewing gum and magazines. This ward feels bizarrely familiar, with its sounds and smells, and brings back memories I'd rather not revisit too frequently. I half-expect to see the people I met while Grandma was in treatment. Some of those people are probably dead now. It's almost surprising how little that idea bothers me, but I've worked so hard to numb those memories that it's no great wonder. The one person I do consider with genuine curiosity, though, is the guy Grandma briefly shared a room with. He was only seventeen, just barely old enough for a bed on the adult ward, and dying slowly. He had a rare disorder that caused tumors to grow indiscriminately all over his body. They pushed on his organs and nerves, causing pain and interrupting normal function. The first time I saw him he completely freaked me out. Luckily he was asleep at the time, so he didn't witness my poor reaction. The whole left side of his face and eyelid were swollen with a massive tumor. He looked like something out of a horror movie. I avoided looking at him whenever I went to visit Grandma, because I 129

didn't think I could control my expression enough not to offend him. I remember very clearly the first time I ever spoke to him, because I was terrified to do it. I was sitting by Grandma while she slept, reading a book. School was out and I had no homework left to keep me occupied. The curtains around both beds were closed, but in the silence I heard a plop and a splash, followed by a quiet, "Damn." I peeked under the curtains and saw a juice box on the floor on its side, leaking slowly. I wasn't sure if I should pick it up. I went out to the orderlies' station first and grabbed a juice box off the tray, both to stall and to replace the dropped one. By the time I got back to the room I was antsy with nerves. I "knocked" before stepping around the curtain. That sort of threw him. He was so used to being in hospitals with no privacy and bustling nurses who had no time to knock. "I, uh, brought you a new one." I held up the juice box lamely. "Thanks." I threw the old box in the garbage and cracked open the new one for him. His hands creeped me out more than his face ­ they were covered with little bumps that were tumors under the skin, and he was missing two fingers that had been removed along with more troublesome growths. I tried not to flinch when I realized he needed help holding the juice box. His hands were next to useless from nerve damage. I couldn't help staring at him while he drank. The unusual swell of his face looked so painful, and his left eye was nearly swollen shut. His healthy eye stared right back at me. "Your eyes are really pretty." I turned beet red the second after I blurted that out. I wasn't lying ­ he had gorgeous blue eyes with long dark lashes ­ but I was worried that he would take my remark the wrong way. But he just said 'thank you' after a moment, and told me that he liked my hair. I don't think a stranger had ever said he looked nice before. I'm still not sure how it happened, really, since we didn't discuss it or even talk much that first day, but for the rest of the summer, whenever I went to visit Grandma, I would visit him too. We talked of mundane things, of heavy things. He didn't belittle my sadness and anger at what was happening to Grandma, even though he had his own heap of troubles to contend with. That was the summer I grew boobs and hips and lost my childish gangliness, if not my clumsiness. He taught me how to flirt, the way we would banter back and forth with my grandmother asleep just a few feet away. Or at least I thought she was asleep. He was my first kiss, just days before Grandma went to hospice. I told him the plan to move her and that I wouldn't be coming around the hospital anymore. We exchanged phone numbers that neither of us would ever call, and as I hugged him goodbye he said, "What, no kiss?" To this day I'm not even sure if he was being serious or not, but I kissed him anyway. He was warm and his lips tasted like morphine and orange juice. I'm almost certain he's dead now. Trying not to think about that period winds me up, and when I leave the hospital I don't go straight home: I go to La Push. Billy isn't home when I get there, but Jake's car is in the driveway. I let myself in and Jake looks up from the couch where he lays, watching TV. "I didn't know you were coming over." He sounds pleasantly surprised. That's good, because it didn't exactly occur to me to call ahead. This place is practically my second home. "I had a rough day." I drop my purse by the door, slip out of my shoes, and lay down with him on the couch so we're spooning. Jake's like a big, warm, cuddly teddy bear, and I could use one right now. "What happened?" "Shit shift volunteering." And Charlie is never home. And Edward keeps bugging me with possessive bullshit. And Mike Newton is a persistent pain in my ass. Mom is away at one of Phil's games, so she can't email as regularly as we have been. ...And yesterday he was keeping so still and only ate half a Jell-O cup at lunch, and I intended to tape a mint to his locker for after but I didn't have any stored up to give him. And Alice looked like she was talking to herself in the car after school, but he was there. He was in the back seat, too sick to sit 130

up. I notice far more about him than I should. "You got through it," Jake says, and pulls me tighter against him with an arm around my waist. We spoon for a while, watching the fuzzy made-for-TV martial arts movie Jake had on when I got here. "You can change the channel if you like." "I don't care." Jake turns the volume down a few notches until it's just background noise. He runs his fingers through my hair, humming softly. "What song is that?" "A Quileute one." "Can I hear it?" His mouth is right behind my ear, and his warm breath tickles me softly as he sings the deep, liquid words. It seems more soothing, not knowing what the words mean. Jake's hand slips under the front of my shirt as he sings, resting against my bare stomach. Such a casual intimacy wouldn't feel right with anyone but Jake. He never asks for more than I can give. It's like he just knows. "What does it mean?" I ask when he finishes the last verse. "It's about wolves and men," he answers vaguely. "One of those old tribal songs, you know?" "Yeah, Jake, I'm an expert on the subject." He chuckles behind me and the whole couch shakes. The hand on my belly flexes slightly, gripping the skin and releasing quickly. "You're soft," he whispers. "You're warm." I reach a hand back and find the elastic band that holds his hair back. I pull it out slowly, trying not to tug. I like his hair down, and these things are fair game with Jake ­ his hand on my stomach, my hand messing with his hair. "I can turn this off if you want," he whispers. "No. Leave it." His fingers begin to trace little circles on my stomach. The largest of these go low enough to brush against the waistband of my jeans, and high enough to touch my second rib. For a second I wonder if he's consciously doing that, but his movement is too even and calculated to be accidental. He's trying to feel me up, testing the waters before he goes for it. I should tell him to stop. I should react in some way to put him off the idea. But I don't. I lie there and watch a badly dubbed martial arts movie while his hand moves around under my top. It never gets any easier than it does with Jake. I undo the button on my jeans. Time to call his bluff. Would he really try shit with Charlie's daughter? His hand moves slowly, coming down from where it edged around my bra to rest on my lower abdomen. Slowly, like I won't notice, he slips his little finger under the waistband. He finds the edge of my underwear ­ and goes beneath it. "Bella?" It's weirding him out that I haven't reacted in any way. "Yeah, Jake?" He sits up on his elbow, leaning over me to study my face. A piece of his hair falls over my forehead and he brushes it away. "Don't." I grab the lock back and twist it around my finger. He has such soft hair, for a guy. Like most guys, he needs only the slightest invitation to bend down and kiss me. I wasn't asking for it. I wasn't thinking about it. But mmmh, he's warm and I feel so small next to him. It's like curling up in a favorite blanket as he turns me toward him with the arm under my shoulders. Jake is a methodical kisser. He goes slow. He's thorough. He leaves no part of my lips unattended to, even if he is a little heavy-handed and forceful about it. The fingers just beyond my waistband are migrating again, moving lower. He has no idea what he's doing down there. I don't think he's going to admit it or ask directions, either, by the way he kisses me more determinedly ­ like I can be distracted from what's going on 131

elsewhere, just until he figures things out. The couch is narrow and uncomfortable. Jake rolls on top of me for a better angle and I'm surrounded by a curtain of hair as he kisses me. He smells like Cheetos and motor oil and he's pressing his groin against my thigh like that on purpose. I know the drill; how these things always go. My mind is a blank space as I reach down to his waistband and pop the button on his pants. He raises his hips slightly to give me enough room to lower the fly, and my hand slips inside. Under his boxers, between his legs, around his eager cock. It takes only the slightest movement and pressure to make him lurch against my hand and moan into my mouth. The hand down my pants stumbles with distraction and his eyes flutter closed. I guess he's new at this; multitasking pleasurable things takes practice. And just like any other guy, a little moan in return is enough to remind him that his hand should be doing something back. I prefer these things without discussion. Jake has large hands, but he isn't clumsy ­ just inexperienced. I think his finger slips inside me purely by accident, because he looks completely surprised. "I'm not hurting you, am I?" So close to my face, his voice is little more than a husky whisper against my lips. I don't want to talk, so instead of answering I stroke him more insistently and lift my hips against his hand. Jake takes the hint. Guys aren't that stupid when it comes to sex. Millions of years of instinct trump conscious thought. I rock back and forth in the narrow space between the couch and his hips. His finger is a nice counterpoint to move against, and the way his palm rests under my jeans puts it at a decent angle to rub against my clit. I'm getting close, and so is he, rubbing each other off to the cadence of foleyed punches and attack screams. Jake's arm tightens around the back of my shoulders, pressing our chests together. I know the harsh tone of his breathing, the absence of little whimpers that mean he's entered the home stretch. I watch his face with a sense of detachment: eyes closed, swollen lips parted, resting his forehead against mine as he pants with pleasure. He stops breathing just before he comes. A shudder ripples down his throat and back, and his eyes open. I'm fucking paralyzed by such openness as he looks me right in the eye and falls the fuck apart on top of me. I can't look away. He bares himself to me in a wholly unfamiliar act of intimacy that I couldn't have prepared myself for if I'd known it was coming, and it makes me feel entirely exposed. Jake's hand brushes my hair. He places a shaky kiss on my lips and whispers, "Bella." I try to move too quickly and end up on the floor. I just lay there on my back with my legs still pinned under his, and decide it's not worth it to move any farther just yet. "Are you okay?" He reaches out to grab me but I put my hands up. Distance is good right now. Jake hesitates, kneeling on the couch on all fours, still winded from our romp. He eases off my legs and my feet fall limply to the floor. "Bella?" "Shit." I sit up. Jake looks at me unsurely. "I shouldn't have done that." He gives me this confused, somewhat wounded expression. God damn it, he even has sex hair right now. "I don't do this kind of shit with friends." Especially not friends as un-complicated as Jake. I've fucked with a good thing. I shouldn't know what my best friend looks like when he comes. "We're not friends who do that. I shouldn't have let this shit happen." "You didn't let anything happen." "This was a one-off, okay? Otherwise it'll throw everything else out of balance." "You think so?" "I don't want to take that gamble." He wipes his hand on his jeans. Oh God. His pants are still undone. So are mine. "Did you like it?" he asks a little shyly. 132

"I'd like to pretend this never happened." "Are you going to be weird now?" he says with a smirk and a scolding tone. He's so easygoing sometimes it's downright infuriating. "No weirdness. No discussion. We never fooled around, okay?" "Fine. If that's what you want." I stand up and fasten my pants. "And no telling Quil and Embry about this either." "I won't," he promises quietly. I grab my purse and shoes and prepare to leave. Jake walks me to the door and tells me to drive safely. "No weirdness," he reminds me as I descend the front steps. "Weirdness about what?" "Okay then." As I drive away I swear I see him do a fist-pump in my rearview mirror. I eat a piece of leftover fish, blow off homework, and crawl into bed. I can't sleep. I put on really angry music and count sheep and meditate and I'm still awake. I think about calling Edward and then I kick myself. This week has been horrible enough, trying to put distance between him and myself, especially because he's so lonely and I'm a sucker for lost causes. I shouldn't have done that with Jake. I shouldn't have enjoyed doing that with Jake. Doing what? Damn straight. It's past eleven-o-clock when my cell rings. It's Edward again, smirking up at me from the screen. And in a moment of weakness, I answer. I press the phone to my ear and listen to the static silence. It doesn't occur to me to say anything. His voice creeps across the line after a few seconds, shy and slightly hopeful: "Bella?" I hang up. I shouldn't have answered to begin with. I toss the phone to the foot of my bed and curl away from it like it's a snake. What the fuck is the matter with me that I have such a hard time ignoring him, even when I know better than to involve myself? After a few minutes of indecision and much self-flagellation, I sit up and retrieve my phone. He gets a text message ­ nothing more. Do you want music? Yes, please. He gets "Life Starts Now" by Three Days Grace ­ thank you, Phil ­ and I relax for the first time tonight, watching the twin glows of my phone and iPod. He only gets one song, because I'm trying not to involve myself, and I text Goodnight instead of saying it over the phone. I had a dream about you the other night. Since when does the phrase "goodnight" invite conversation? I don't reply but he sends another text anyway. You were accusing me of stealing your mallard duck. I can't help but smile at the image. Sounds like something you'd do. Did you give it back? Of course :) I put my phone aside and roll over, ready for sleep. It buzzes again. Are we okay now? Don't get any ideas. Edward would take the slightest invitation to make himself entirely too welcome in my life. I can't abide that. The borderline-insanity of being apart from him is better than the insanity of being around 133

him. There's no one but me to witness, this way. Can I call you? We need to talk. Jesus H. Christ, that sounds like something a boyfriend would say. My gag reflex isn't strong enough for this shit. There's nothing to say. There isn't anything I want to hear, anyway. I turn off my phone for the night in the hope of sparing my last shred of sanity ­ if I can find that much left in the recesses of my weary brain. Somehow, I doubt it.

Thursday

In my dreams, Grandma always has her braids still. They wrap around her head, the way she wore them every day. Her hair is still the color it was when I was a little girl: silver mingled with very light brown, like the grain of blond wood. This time she doesn't have her braids. She sits at her dressing table with her hair undone, brushing it out before bed. My reflection doesn't appear in the mirror, but she sees me behind her and smiles. She hands me the hairbrush. As I brush her long hair, strands fall away in clumps, just as they did when I shaved her head. I brush until there is nothing left but her smooth scalp and the web of veins underneath. "Do you regret it?" she asks. "Regrets are heavy things, my girl." I watch her face in the mirror as she watches me. "You're going to regret that boy." Her eyes move and I follow. Grandma always had dozens of pictures stuck in the sides of her vanity mirror. Old friends, her husband, her daughter, and me. In every picture the face has been replaced by Edward's, but it's a face I don't really recognize. He has weight on his frame and red-brown hair in desperate need of a comb. And all I can think is: Shit, he's invaded her memory too. I stand close to the mirror and examine every picture. He's even in the ones that used to be of me ­ learning to ride a tricycle, playing with the neighbor's cat, swimming with Mom. He has replaced me. I give Grandma a questioning look. She isn't beautiful anymore, like she was when I started to brush her hair. Her skin is grey and papery and her eyes are red with burst blood vessels. She grins at me and her teeth are stained with blood. "Have you killed him, yet?" When she speaks more blood seeps from between her teeth. It drips over her lips and runs down her chin, onto her white nightgown. I tell her I never meant to hurt anybody. She chuckles at me, the same way she used to when I was little and being silly. "My love, dying is easier than breathing." She winks. "But I think you knew that one already." The blood flows faster. It comes out of her nose, too, and forms a steady drip onto her lap. "Still," she turns away and makes a flippant hand gesture, "if you're going to kill that boy, do it quick, one way or another. He's already dying, and you know how fast a body can go." "I know." A blinding pain in the side of my head wakes me up. I rolled out of bed in my sleep and railed my head on the nightstand. Charlie comes in to investigate why I'm taking the Lord's name in vain so loudly this early in the morning. "Are you bleeding?" he checks my scalp and says it looks okay. "You might have a bit of a bump." It's still only five-o-clock, so after he determines that I'm fine and helps me off the floor, Charlie 134

says goodnight and goes back to bed for another hour of sleep. Shit. I hang my head between my knees and breathe deeply. "Have you killed him, yet?" I have my phone in my hand and his number selected (he put himself on my speed dial, too) before I catch myself. I shouldn't call him. For one, it's five-o-clock in the freaking morning. For another, he's probably fine. He's not dying that fast. What do you care? You're not involving yourself, remember? Maybe so, but advice from beyond the grave is difficult to ignore. Grandma said to kill him one way or another. She's dead. It was a dream. I am really starting to lose my shit. I bury my head under my pillow and count the minutes until I have to get up for school. I don't sleep a wink. School is like a fucking minefield. I show up borderline-tardy so I won't have to run into any of the Cullens in the hallway, and during Trig Jessica chats my ear off about Mike's general indecisiveness. Apparently he won't commit. I don't blame him ­ it's Jess and it's only been a few weeks. "Just give him some space." I don't know if that's good advice or not; I just like the sound of it at the moment. "You think so?" Fuck, I shouldn't have said anything. Now if this goes rotten, I'm the one who touched it last. "Scratch that, just follow your heart." Jessica is one for platitudes. She often mistakes them for deep philosophy. "Maybe I should try to make him jealous." Be a good friend. Be a good friend. "That's an excellent idea, Jess." I said a good friend! The little devil on my shoulder is entirely too persuasive sometimes. Jessica sighs tiredly and changes the subject by asking me how my night was. "Completely uneventful, actually." Clearly her mind is still on her own romantic woes, because she immediately switches the subject back to Mike. "He's so...he never wants to do anything with me! Is Jake like that?" "What?" Did she just assume we're in the same category as her and Mike? "Like that time you went cliff diving with him. You guys do stuff together, right?" Yeah, like fuck around on his dad's couch. "We have our shared hobbies. We're not dating, though." "You should. He's really cute." I think of that look on his face last night. Jacob Black is anything but 'cute.' "You're blushing!" I turn away and mutter lamely about how fucking hot it is in here. Edward isn't in biology today. Probably a good thing, since the lab still smells of formaldehyde, and it would be unbelievable luck if he could stand two consecutive days of that stench without puking. I take careful notes that he probably won't ask to copy. He only cares about this course when it suits him. I suppose I should count myself lucky that he didn't skip out on dissection day. It would have been really inconvenient to hunt him down and kick his ass for leaving me with a pig. At the end of the hour I swing past the nurse's office on my way to Gym. He isn't there either. 135

"Are you looking for your friend?" the nurse says to me. I guess for how often Edward is in here, she's noticed that I'm the only one besides his family that talks to him. "He's not been in today," she says. If he's not in class and he's not here, he's probably at home. I thank the nurse and head off to Gym. He hasn't been sick enough to miss a whole day in awhile. Maybe the effects of the pig project caught up with him after school last night.

Friday

When I get to biology Edward is already seated, arms folded on the table and head pillowed on top. His face is turned to the side, watching me as I take my seat and arrange my books. "Hey," he murmurs quietly, like he's expecting rebuff. "Hi." He watches me for the rest of the period, but I can't stand to look at him. He looks so damn sad, and the new pallor in his face worries me. I shouldn't involve myself in that. It's bad for me (if past experience is anything to judge by) and probably bad for him too. He could really use a bowl of chickpea and kidney bean soup. Damn it, you're doing it again! When class ends I get up to leave and Edward grabs my sleeve. I look over to see what he wants, but he looks just as bewildered as I feel to find his hand on my shirt. He lets go like the fabric is hot and walks away with his eyes on the floor. I catch a glimpse of him on my way to Gym. He's vomiting in the bushes on his way to English. Poor fucker. He sees me looking at him and gives me a glare that makes me truly glad that looks cannot in fact kill. I can't decide if I should go to Alice's party tonight. I said I would, and I already bought her gift, but Edward will be there... It takes about twenty minutes of pacing to come to the conclusion that it's Alice's party, and that my problems with Edward shouldn't interfere with making tonight special for her. I have no issues with Alice, after all. And looks can't really kill. I make garlic knots as a hostess gift, five of which fall victim to Charlie's appetite before I manage to pack them up to take with me. These things are bloody addictive. As I clean up the mess from preparing garlic knots, I consider what else I could bring. Edward ate yogurt at lunch today, but didn't finish his juice. He barely drank half of it. His lips were dry today in biology and he was breathing slower than normal. Peeled, seeded cucumbers find their way into the blender with vanilla yogurt, honey and lots of milk. Grandma always wanted cinnamon with her Dehydration Shakes, as she called them... can his stomach handle that? Edward generally does well with barely spiced foods, so I play it safe and season with a few tablespoons of orange juice to bring out the sweetness of the cucumber. I pour the shake into a thermos for the road, and go upstairs to get ready. Shower, dress, a touch of makeup, and I'm out of reasons to stall. Why am I going to his house again? Because Alice is too much of a sweetheart to skip out on. But I still feel weird about going. I don't know many of Alice's other friends. What if I have no one to talk to, and Edward uses that as an excuse to corner me? He would rather isolate me with him than crawl out of his shell, and the thought of an entire evening in his company makes me shiver. I can't stand to be around him that long. He...upsets me. I pick up the phone and consider whom to call. It doesn't take long to come up with a suitable 136

friend, and I dial. The phone rings five times before I get an answer. "Hello?" "Want to come to a party with me tonight?" The line of parked cars stretches from the Cullens' front porch, down the long driveway, and out onto the shoulders of the road. I guess "just a few friends" is relative to someone as social as Alice. "I've always wanted to see the inside of this house," Angela says as I find a place to park. "It's so... big." "It's gorgeous inside." Angela smiles. "I'm not surprised you've been inside." I can't put my finger on exactly why that remark irritates me. It's unsettling to not know the origins of my own moods. When we enter the front hall Alice skips through the crowd ­ there must be fifty people here ­ to welcome us. "Bella!" she sings. "What took you so long?" It's only ten-thirty, but judging by the noise level, Angela and I are a little late. "Who've you brought with you?" Alice asks as she folds Angela's hand between hers in welcome. I introduce Angela, who remarks about what a lovely home the Cullens have. Alice catches me looking her up and down and winks. "You look...hot." I take Alice by the hand and she spins for us like a ballerina. She looks mysterious and sexy, like a femme fatal in an old black and white filme noir. "Thanks. I made it myself." "You wear it well." I give Alice her birthday gift right then, since it might actually work with what she's already wearing. Her gift is small enough to fit in my pocket: it's a black wood ring with a lion's head carved into the upper half. Very Gryffindor - bold but classy. Alice is pleased with the ring and garlic knots. She leads the way to the kitchen and even gives me a serving tray to put them out on. "Do they have to warm up in the oven?" "They're good warm, but they don't have to be." I put Edward's thermos in the fridge to keep cool while Alice and Angela start putting the knots on the tray. Alice notices my other 'gift.' "He's around." And I was just about to be glad that I haven't run into him yet, because it's going to be fucking awkward when I do. It might even break me. I don't regret my decision to bring Angela along. We find seats on the porch, and though I don't know many people here, she knows a few people from the drama club's stage crew. We hang out with them awhile and talk, and it is so sweet to watch the way Angela looks at the curly haired kid, Ben. She regards him with genuine affection, not just dorky high school infatuation. And he doesn't seem to fucking notice. "I'm surprised you're not on stage crew," I say to Angela. "You're so organized." Ben takes the bait and looks up from his drink. "Yeah, it's not too late to join. The school play isn't till May, and we always need extra hands." Angela flushes at the attention. "Tall people always come in handy on the crew," he concludes, and I want to kick him. Angela hunches down a little, conscious of her height. She's tall for a girl, but not freakishly so. "I wish I had long legs like yours." We three look down at Angela's legs, casually extended in front of her and crossed at the ankle. She really does have beautiful legs. Angela blushes and mumbles "Thanks." Ben doesn't say anything. 137

Conversation shifts along at a moseying pace. Sometimes I think Ben gets Angela's hints and attempts to flirt, and sometimes I swear he's oblivious. Quite the riddle, that one. It's after midnight when Angela finally works up the guts to just ask Ben to dance. I quickly make an excuse of going inside for another drink, both to avoid having to dance too and to give them some privacy. Edward's thermos is still in the fridge. I haven't seen him all night. Granted, I've been out on the porch and it's probably too chilly out there for him. I take the thermos out of the fridge and go to look for him. I try the obvious places first: living room, front room, hallway, and backyard ­ nothing. I even check unlikely places, like the laundry room and garage, but he isn't there either. I run into Alice near the stereo ­ she's giggling her way through some sort of partnered dance with a Latin girl whose name I don't know ­ and ask if she's seen Edward around. "He went upstairs for a bit." In the spirit of wishful thinking, I check the library first. I really don't want to have to knock on his bedroom door. That would imply that I want to spend one-on-one time with him, and just the thought of that creeps me out. But he isn't in the library. "Fucking hell." I weigh the thermos in my hand, considering whether I should just leave it in the fridge. But he looked dehydrated this afternoon... I walk softly down the hall to his room, like a thief trying not to get caught, and knock on his door. Maybe I should just leave the thermos on the carpet and run. Edward doesn't answer. I put my ear to the door and listen. Nothing. Maybe he went back downstairs... The soft thump of a small object on carpet changes my mind. I knock again and he still doesn't answer. Just a peek? I test the door handle. It isn't locked. I slide the door open a crack and peer into the dim room on the other side. The fact that the lights are off makes me pause. He might be asleep, and the light from the hall would disturb him. I flick the switch for the hall light and push his door open fully. He is asleep, but it doesn't look like he planned it that way. He's laying across the foot of the bed, for one, and still fully clothed, for another. His left arm hangs over the edge of the mattress. He's going to get pins and needles like that. The object I heard fall turns out to be his cell phone. It rests just under his limp arm, glowing up at me. The screen reads No New Messages. I wonder whom he was trying to contact. I pick up the phone and place it on his nightstand. His arm is trickier. I have to move it very slowly and gently to lay it across his chest without waking him, and then remove his watch so carefully you'd think I was trying to steal it. It's hard to tell with only the small amount of light coming up the stairs, but he still looks dehydrated and ill. A big part of me wants to wake him up and offer him the thermos, but I don't know where that gesture will lead, and I'm not exactly up for an early morning heart-to-heart in his bedroom. And I've learned my lesson about waking up sick people for trivial reasons. I fold Edward's comforter in half to keep him warm and close the door softly behind me. I want to go home. I find Angela with Ben in the living room and tell her that I'm going to take off. "Oh...okay," she says unsurely. I know she wants to stay with Ben. She wants to dance some more and talk to him and maybe even sneak a kiss or two. "Maybe Ben can drive you home? You guys look like you're having fun." 138

Angela and Ben exchange questioning looks. "Uh...sure I can take her home." Angela blushes a little. I hug her goodbye and leave her to an evening of romantic possibilities. That night I dream of a highway surrounded by cacti and red-brown boulders. I'm home. There is no sun, no rain, no wind; only the highway and the smell of gasoline and the vibration of tires under my body. I was never any good at running away. I always drove.

Saturday

I wake up numb. It feels good. I throw on the first clothes I find and drag my feet down to the kitchen. I need to do groceries today, and before I even consider breakfast I grab a piece of paper to make a list. We need the usual stuff: eggs, milk, butter, and bread. I make a list of vegetables I feel like using and check the freezer to determine our fish supply. We're pretty much set in the event of any disaster, the way Charlie stockpiles the stuff. He's out catching more today. I'm not surprised. I open the cupboard to check our stock of oatmeal and cereal, and find the honey jar almost empty. I can't have used that much already... But I did. Two months of making soups and drinks for him adds up. I take the empty jar down from the shelf and stare at it. Should I buy more? Should I keep making him food? He needs it. I enjoy doing it. I worry about him when I don't do it. But does that mean I should? I end up buying honey. And ginger. And rice flour. And after I'm done checking out, I hate myself. I'm a fucking masochist, revisiting all the painful shit in my life just so he can gain a pound or two. I should stop. Let him eat Jell-O and fend for himself. But then I'd really hate myself. When I get home from the grocery store there is a milk crate on my porch full of car parts. A note rests on top, penned in Jake's wide, sprawling hand. Could you store these with the others? Sorry I couldn't stick around. Dad needs my help today. ­ Jake He's drawn a big 'O' underneath and filled it with x's. That cheeky dork. I change into my plaid work shirt and take the box out to the garage. I catalogue all the parts and number the milk crate before taking it out to the shed. When I open the door at the side of the garage and nearly walk into the bumper of a silver Volvo. I didn't even hear him arrive. Edward steps out of his car, watching me intently, as I kick the side door shut behind me. "You might have called before coming over." "You might have answered." He notices the box of car parts in my hands and frowns. I walk away, through the side gate and toward the back shed. Edward follows me slowly, quietly, like he's trying not to be too intrusive. That's a new thing for him. I put the box inside with all the others ­ this shed is half-full of car parts now ­ and step back into the wan light of day. Edward studies me with a scowl as I replace the padlock on the shed door. "Why are you here?" "Are you still mad at me?" he demands. "Yes." Probably not for the reasons he's thinking, but that wasn't the question. He asked if I was mad, and I am. Edward steps forward and stands close enough to invade my personal space. He corners me between the shed wall and his tall frame, looming over me like a bully spoiling for a fight. 139

"And you won't even listen to an apology?" he snarls. "Fuck off, Cullen." I put my hands on his shoulders and push him back. "You have no right to intimidate me like that." "Why won't you look at me?" he demands. "Why does it matter?" I snap. He takes another step in my direction and I back away. Space is a very good thing right now. Last time he lost his temper, he shoved me into shelves hard enough to cause bruises and kicked a chair. I don't want to be the thing he lashes out against this time, and I don't want to have to hit him back when I know he has a bruising problem. "You know why it's important to me," he snarls. That selfish ass. All he thinks about is his own ego and emotional wellbeing. It never occurs to him that it might be difficult for me to look at him, no matter what my reason. "No, why is it important to me?" It occurs to him now, but as usual, he twists it with selfishness. Edward gapes at me with a wounded look and takes a step back. All he perceives is rejection, with no thought spared for what's going on in my head. He tries and fails to compose his face into blankness before turning away and walking toward the gate. He folds his arms around his front as he goes. Fuck him, I think, and lean back against the shed door. Edward has a way of sucking all the energy out of me. Since I met him all he's done is take from me and give barely anything in return. I'm crazy to hang out with him. I'm crazy to like him. The entire dynamic of this friendship is downright unhealthy. He didn't latch the gate properly when he left. I slowly make my way across the mushy lawn to close it, and when I get close I see the front bumper of the Volvo around the corner of the house, still in the driveway. He hasn't left yet. I feel like a bitch just for contemplating it, but I know that I should stick up for myself and run him off. If he's loitering around waiting for me to cave in and give him what he wants, he can forget it. I march around the side of the house to tell him off, but I can't hold onto my resolve once I get a look at him. At first the only thing I see is the top of his hat above the steering wheel, on which he rests his forehead. I step slowly around the side of the car and see him clutching his arms around his middle like he's in pain. My first thought is that something is physically wrong with him ­ that he's sick and needs medical attention. Then I pause to take a closer look at him through the droplet-covered window. I didn't see it at first with his head bent like that, but his face is twisted up in pain and he's crying. The cold, calculating part of my brain wonders whether I should call the hospital or his parents first. As I reach for my cell phone he shifts slightly in his seat, and I get a better look at him. He's not just crying, he's full out sobbing. No one can cry like that if the pain is in their abdomen, where he's wrapped his arms. As much as I should hate his guts right now, I can't stand it that he's hurting. I open the car door, not without hesitation, and he turns his head to look at me. "Hey." I reach out to touch him and he grabs my hand so hard it hurts. I guess I have a spare, but fuck... His head moves from the steering wheel to rest against my front. "Please." His free hand fists around my shirt. I put an arm around his shoulders ­ he's trembling with tears that he's shamefully trying to quiet. "Don't cut me out," he says shakily. Fuck me, please don't beg. "I've been a really shitty, fucking awful friend, but please..." A little sob escapes and fuck if that doesn't make my traitor heart melt. I dislodge my hand from his grip and he backs up. He's got that wounded look of rejection again. "Come here." I wrap both arms around his shoulders. He practically falls into the hug with a grateful little whimper, holding onto my middle so hard I can barely breathe. "I didn't mean to upset you like this." I say as he hiccups and gasps. I had banked on him feeling anger and resentment, not falling to pieces in my driveway. 140

"I didn't mean to m-make you mad," he answers with a thin voice. "You just...I reacted badly, and I couldn't make it right..." His face twists in pain again and I tug on his shoulders before the water works can gear up again. "Come inside." I give him a cup of cool water that he's shaking too badly to drink, and sit him down in the kitchen with his head between his knees and a cool cloth across his neck. He's shaking and breathing like he just ran a marathon in cold weather. "You're all right," I encourage him, rubbing circles on his back. "You must think I'm such a pussy," he says lowly, sniffing back snot. "You have no idea what I think." Edward sits up slowly and takes the towel off his neck. His thinly lashed eyes are swollen and his cheeks are stained. "Why wouldn't you let me apologize?" "Because I didn't want to fix it." That was precisely the wrong thing to say. He presses his lips together and stops breathing. At first I think he's angry, and watch as he lowers his head again and replaces the cold towel. He doesn't make a sound, but little drops begin to strike the tiles. It's not the towel that's dripping. "Edward." "You're my only friend," he says in a voice strained with emotion. "We can't -? I won't hang around if you don't want me to." He tries to stand up but I grab him by the shoulders and sit him right back down. "You have no idea what I want, either." And coincidentally, neither to I, apparently. "You don't want me around." "Let's talk about this when you've calmed down a little." I take the towel off his neck and brush it across his cheeks. "Lay down on the couch for a bit, ok?" Edward lies down on his side, still breathing shakily, and tucks one of the throw pillows under his head. There are spots of color on his cheeks, whether from exertion or embarrassment, I can't tell. Maybe it's a little of both. Edward grimaces and points at my front. I look down and see a big, smeared string of snot on my shirtfront from when I hugged him in the car. "I'm sorry." He reaches for the Kleenex box but I hold out a hand to stop him. "That'll just smear it around." I turn to go change out of this shirt and Edward sits up as I leave. I point a finger at him imperiously and say, "Lay down." He wisely obeys, but there's a distrustful look in his eye, like he doesn't want to let me out of his sight. So I don't go upstairs. I go across the hall to the laundry room and take a clean t-shirt off the top of the basket. I bring it back to the living room - because I know if I was gone for more than fifteen seconds he would get up to follow me like a puppy. Edward looks up when I come back in, plainly trying to read my face. I toss the t-shirt on the recliner and take a seat. I have to unbutton the plaid shirt carefully to avoid touching the snot, but I get it off without smearing. My bra today is a tired, well-loved one: old white cotton, as modest coverage as they make, with sweat stains under the arms that even bleach won't take care of. I pull my t-shirt over my head and straighten it around my shoulders. Edward is glaring at me. "What?" "You don't think of me as a real guy, do you?" "What are you talking about?" 141

"You wouldn't have just taken your shirt off in front of Mike Newton." His tone is accusatory, which sets me on edge. "A gentleman would have looked away." "A lady wouldn't have taken her shirt off in the first place." I grab the snotted-up plaid and stand up with a huff. "There's always something up your ass," I complain, and march off to the laundry room to wash the plaid. I throw it in the washer with a load of dirty dishtowels, still ruminating on what an oversensitive dick Edward can be. He's right, I probably wouldn't take my shirt off in front of Newton, but that's because Mike would read it as an invitation. Under any other circumstances, I wouldn't mind being shirtless at all. This bra covers way more than the average bathing suit, so it's hardly pushing the bounds of modesty to show it off, not to mention it's probably the least sexy thing I own. It's not like I flashed him. When I return to the living room Edward is sitting sideways on the couch with his knees bent, arms resting over them, looking contrite. "I'm sorry," he says. I know it's emotional blackmail, but it's sort of nice how politely he speaks to me now. No sarcasm, just honest communication. He's terrified of doing anything that might dissolve our friendship. I stand over him and bury my hands in my pockets. "I'm sorry I didn't talk to you before I coldshouldered you." Edward looks down at his lap and smiles sadly. "Why'd you do it?" "I told you from the start it's better if we're not friends. I intend to kill you, remember?" He looks up at me with squinty eyes, like he's irritated but trying to hide it. "Can you warn me next time you decide to ignore me for my own good?" "Why?" "So I can be prepared." "How do you prepare for that?" Edward looks away and shrugs. "I dunno." I watch him flex his hands around his knees. His knuckles dig into the denim, tightening and releasing, before he knits his hands together and looks up at me. If his hands are an obvious indicator of his thoughts, his eyes are even more so. "Are we still friends?" "Can you handle me?" "Can you handle me?" he returns quietly but earnestly. "Maybe. Do you have it in you to stop being so fucking pessimistic all the time, and to be a little less possessive?" "I shouldn't have snapped on you," he murmurs. "Yeah," I agree with a nod. "I get it that you were mad, but there's shit you just don't do. I don't call you Uncle Fester, you don't steal my phone and mess with it, or get pissed off that I have a life outside of this." I gesture between us. Whatever 'this' is. "You don't cut me out like that again," he adds. "I won't. And will you please quit calling all the time and asking Charlie where I am? He thinks I have a stalker." Edward smirks. "I'll cut back. A little. You could just, y'know, answer your phone." "I'll work on it." "So...friends?" The word sounds wrong; frightening, strangely pleasant, and somehow not enough. I feel like I know him better than that. I've shared my memories of my happiest and hardest days with this guy. I'm not 'friends' with Edward the same way I am with Jessica or Angela. Or Jake. "Okay."

142

Edward excuses himself to use the washroom and I go upstairs. There's something I want to show him. I find the book on my shelf and flip through to the appropriate page. I don't want to show him the whole book, so I write down the part that's relevant on a piece of notepaper. By the time I'm done I can hear him calling for me nervously on the ground floor, like I would take off and ditch him in my own house. "Coming." He meets me halfway up the stairs. He's got that frightened puppy look again. "For you." I hand him the folded notepaper and he takes it like it's a death warrant. Hardly. It's a poem by Darrell Epp. For A Sick Friend aggressively competing with the urge to write something is the urge to write nothing, record nothing, to tie my hands behind my back and sew my lips shut, to quit adding to this stack of poems that will never help anyone as much as you've helped me. Edward reads through it a few times, standing below me on the stair. I've never seen him from this angle before. Standing on the upper stair, we're almost equal height. "Is that how you see me?" he asks, looking up at me from under red lids. "I figured you'd get it." He turns back to the page. "So..." He struggles for a few seconds, blowing sighs out through his nose and fiddling with his hat and rubbing the back of his neck. "Is that why you...y'know, ditched me? It was too much to handle...with your grandma. And... stuff. I mean, I know what everyone thinks ­ were you tired of being stared at?" "If I had a problem with you having cancer I wouldn't have been nice to you in the first place. It's not like it's something you have to disclose." I gesture up and down to his tall, thin frame. He looks absolutely sallow in the late afternoon light. Edward looks down and nods uncomfortably. He knows how he looks. "This," I flick the poem, "is my side of things. Can you appreciate that maybe you remind me of some very painful shit that happened in my life? I mean in addition to being a jerk." "Are you sure you don't want me to leave you alone?" "I want you to admit that your feelings aren't the only ones that matter." "I'm sorry. You do matter. You matter a lot." He reaches out to grab the railing suddenly and sways a little. "Are you okay?" "Just got lightheaded there for a minute." He turns and sits down on the stair before he can fall down. "Do you need food? Juice?" "No." I take a seat beside him and he snorts self-deprecatingly. "You know, I was so nervous to come over here and talk to you that I made myself sick." "Jeez, Cullen." I rub slow circles on his back. He folds up the poem and tucks it away in his pocket. "Is it okay with you if I lay on the couch awhile longer?" "Do you want my bed? It's comfier than that saggy old couch, and closer to the bathroom if you feel sick." He quietly accepts the offer and we head upstairs. On second thought, I go back downstairs to grab the mop bucket out of the laundry room. If he's dizzy as well as nauseated it'd be better if he didn't have to try to run to the bathroom. I sit on the desk chair, facing him where he's curled up on his side. He barely fits length-wise in my 143

twin bed. "Why weren't you at Alice's party last night?" I don't think he came downstairs the whole night. "I was. I drifted in and out. Emmett and I were supposed to be 'supervising,' but it seemed like he had a handle on it." "What did you do?" "I called some friends. Caught up with them and stuff." That explains the cell phone on his floor. "Sounds like fun." Edward snorts. "More like an exercise in jealousy." "How's that?" "They have lives. Places to go, people to see. I live in Forks and have no social life." "I take it you didn't always scare people away?" Edward scowls at me. "You know why people avoid me." "I know why you think they do." I pick up a pencil off my desk and run it through my fingers, toying with it to keep my thoughts moving. "You think you look creepy, and it puts people off. And yeah, you're right, maybe it does freak a few people out, but that's not enough to make you a complete pariah. People avoid you because you push them away with moodiness and jackassery." He stares at me for a few seconds like I haven't got to the point yet, and then closes his eyes and sighs through his nose. "I wish I could have known you before I got sick." I have never felt more compelled to smack this boy. I put my pencil aside so I don't break it and tell him that's a stupid thing to wish. "I know. Can't turn back time." He can be so dense it's unbelievable. "Everything I know about you from before points to the fact that I wouldn't have liked you had I known you then, and you probably wouldn't have liked me either." "You like me now?" Always with the difficult questions. "You're not unlikeable." "But do you?" he pushes quietly. "Yes." The corner of his mouth lifts in a small smile. "I like you too." There's an awkward silence where I don't know if I'm supposed to say something back. We both get a little shifty-eyed; studying benign objects around the room in between the searching glances we throw at each other. He breaks the silence first. "Can you...?" "What?" "Can you come sit over here? I mean...your hand on my back felt really nice." He seems so embarrassed just to ask. I can't think of a reason why not, so I leave the chair and sit behind him on the bed, between his back and the wall. He relaxes just a little as I make circles on his back. The arms he has wrapped around his middle shift slightly, so he's holding them up around his chest. "Thanks." He smiles sadly and snorts like something is funny in a pathetic sort of way. "What was that for?" "Yesterday you weren't even willing to look at me, and today you're being nice and touching me." "You're being nice too." Edward reaches out and picks up my iPod off the nightstand. He holds it out to me questioningly, and I take it. We each take an earphone and I scroll through my playlists for an appropriate song. "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies. It's apt. Edward picks the next one, "Iris" by The Goo Goo Dolls, and he drifts off to my second pick: "In the Sun" by Joseph Arthur. Edward's sleep is swift and sound. He's exhausted in so many ways. I take the earphone out gently when he begins to snore and sit back with my music, watching him sleep. When he begins to shiver slightly I get up and fold the blanket over him like a human burrito. That settles him for a little while, but then he begins to shake again and makes 144

mewling sounds under his breath. "Shh," I whisper, like he's a restless child. I put an arm over him and adjust the edge of the blanket to keep the cooler air away from him. Edward curls further into himself, pressing his back against my front. Some part of his unconscious mind realizes I'm warm, and he turns his head toward me in sleep. His neck is going to cramp like that. "Lift your head," I encourage him, even as I do it for him. I slip the pillow under his head and bundle the blanket a little tighter. Edward's eyelids flutter. He groans and I sit up on my elbow. "Go back to sleep. I've got you." Edward licks his lips and forces his eyes open. He has a hell of a time of it, blinking tiredly as he tries to focus. "I forgot my meds." It feels like all the air has gone out of the room at once. I haven't felt that in awhile. It's a sensation whose absence I never lament. "Fuck." I fling back the edge of the blanket and pat down his pockets, looking for the little pill sorter I know he keeps. I find it in his front left pocket. There is a familiar pill still in the Afternoon slot. "I'll get you some water." Clumsy me takes the stairs two at a time. Fear and guilt usually make me more of a klutz, but by the mercy of divine providence I don't trip. I am such a fuck up ­ to upset him so badly is one thing, but to upset him to the point where he forgets important medication is quite another. He wasn't shivering in his sleep; he wasn't cold ­ he was in pain and starting to withdraw a little bit. It's dangerous to miss a dose of opiates after prolonged use. I take the cup of water upstairs and help him sit up. His hands are shaking, so I slip the pill past his lips and help him steady the cup at his mouth. "I'm sorry." "You're sorry? I don't care if you're fucking sorry ­ are you okay?" "You look worried." He tilts his head to the side curiously, like I'm the one being the idiot here. "I look fucking worried..." I shake my head. "I ought to bubble-wrap you, Cullen." "I'll be fine." "Lay down." He obeys like he's scared of what I'll do if he doesn't. "Are you hurting?" "Swan," he scolds me softly. I must be over-reacting. I do that when people fuck with my head. I have serious issues with watching people endure pain. "Sorry." I set the pill sorter down on the nightstand, and set myself down on my desk chair. "I'm sorry I fucked you up so bad." "I've lived through worse." I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from yelling at him: Stop saying shit like that! Your entire life isn't a fucking disease! But I've frightened him enough for one day, so I let it be. "Okay then," I say. "But I still intend to kill you." Edward stays for dinner. I make beet soup with fresh mint leaves. It's a starter for Charlie and I, and a main course for Edward. I've got fish in the oven and vegetables on the stove for the entrée. We're just sitting down to eat when Jake shows up unexpectedly and lets himself in, bringing the sunshine with him. That grin can light up a room. He takes a chair like his appearance is nothing out of the ordinary, and Charlie asks him how Billy is doing. I wonder if he drove all this way for a meal or if he was in Forks already on some errand. "Not bad," Jake says. He lifts the cover on the soup tureen and smells the contents. "Looks good." He takes a helping and gets red lips along with the rest of us. 145

"Okay, where's the real food?" he says when I get up to clear away three soup bowls. He jumps up to help me take the food out of the oven and serve it. Edward's face is practically buried in his bowl. It would be easy to mistake his posture for eagerness to eat, but he's spooning his soup slowly and his shoulders are hunched. Just working his way through his 'fake' food, I guess. "How's the soup?" I slide a serving of fish Charlie's way. "It's good. Thank you," he says quietly. Jake tries to make conversation by asking Edward how he's been since they last met, that night on the beach. "Fine. Did you have fun last night?" The question perplexes Jake. He looks to me for help, and I can only shrug. I don't know what Edward is referring to. "The party," he says like we're the thick ones. "What party?" Jake elbows me. "It was his sister's birthday last night," I tell Jake, and elbow him back. "Cool. Sorry I missed it." Edward looks like he couldn't possibly disagree any more. "Angela and I ended up going together." Edward looks from me to Jake with something like curiosity, or maybe suspicion. Jake steals a cherry tomato off my plate and Charlie, who is never good at making conversation, asks Edward how Dr. Cullen has been lately. When the meal is done, I pack up a container of the leftover soup for Edward to take home. He might need a filling snack later to balance out the strain of a trying day. After the day I've had, I'm emotionally exhausted, but Jake is a bundle of energy, and it's contagious. He helps me with the dishes while Edward hangs back, quietly putting the dry dishes back in the cupboard. He watches me intently out of the corner of his eye, looking for something. Jake, in turn, is eying Edward. The way he does it makes me think that he wants Edward to leave. Clearly Edward thinks that too, because the moment the last dish is put away he quietly announces his intention to go home. "I'll walk you out." We hug goodbye in the foyer. Edward apologizes ­ unnecessarily ­ again, and says, "Thanks for the blanket last night." He's got this look on his face like he isn't sure he phrased that right. "You're welcome." The corner of his mouth twitches up. There's nothing left to say, so he quietly takes his leave. I stand by the screen door, watching him go to his car. He drives away quickly. "You doing anything tonight?" Jake says from right the fuck behind me. I jump and he chuckles. "You're fucking huge, how can you walk so softly?" "It's a gift." He smiles cheekily. "There's a bonfire at the beach tonight." It's a Saturday, and I've had a hard week, and Jake is good at picking me up, as long as we're acting like everything is back to normal. I grab my jacket, call my plans across the house to Charlie, and we're off. The bonfire at the beach is attended by Quil, Embry, and a girl named Leah that not even Quil tries the horndog routine on. And I can see why: she's a complete hard-ass and a pyro to boot. Jake informs me that he had to invite her along because they're distantly related and Billy made him. "She's been having a rough time," he says. "Shut your fucking mouth, Black," she barks at him. "Don't listen." 146

"I'll fucking leave if you don't want me here." "No you won't," he laughs. "It's your mission in life to annoy the crap out of people." So she stays, sitting like a bump on a log, burning scrub grass from the high beach blade by blade. I don't like to look at her. She's stained and starving in places that can only be seen if you know what to look for. It gives me shivers. Jake mistakes these for cold and puts an arm around me. He's getting touchy, but he's so warm, and we're supposed to pretend that nothing happened, so I let him. "Let's get out of here," Jake says to me when it gets late by parental standards. We say goodbye to Quil and Embry, who resignedly volunteer to drive Leah home. "Hey, white girl," Leah calls after me as we walk away. I look back over my shoulder. "I see you," she says stiffly, and raises her chin, challenging me. I sneer without meaning to. "I see you, too. You must have fucked up hard, since we're talking." She looks like she's been kicked in the stomach. Jake just looks confused. "Let's go." Jake doesn't drive me home. We go to our private inlet. It's high tide, so we sit on the tops of the round rocks and dip our bare feet in the water. "Sorry about Leah." "She's alright." I ask Jake what happened to her, and he tells me about Leah's ex-boyfriend and the cruel way he left her for her cousin after three years. It's like something out of a soap opera. The fire tonight was the first time she's been out of the house in months. "She'll be okay." "I hope so. Her attitude is getting old." "Yeah, but she's self aware, which means she isn't entirely consumed by grief anymore. She noticed me, remember? If she was completely doomed, she wouldn't have registered my presence at all." Jake nudges me with his elbow. "Why'd she say that to you, anyway? I don't get it." "We just understand each other, is all." Before we leave the inlet to drive home, he tries to kiss me. I let him. It soothes the ache in my chest. "This doesn't mean anything, you know." Jake kisses my nose. "Yet." That cocky fuck.

Sunday

I wake up at six and can't fall back to sleep. So I get up and take a shower. I eat a big breakfast, read the morning paper, and barely wait till eight-o-clock before getting in my truck and heading over to the Cullen house. Esme is awake when I get there ­ go figure. She lets me in, and we chat over coffee while we wait for everyone else to wake up. Dr. Cullen comes downstairs first and offers to make pancakes. Esme declines. Alice drifts in next, bleary-eyed with wild bedhead and pajama pants about six inches too long. She pours herself a giant cup of coffee and tries to drown herself in it before saying good morning. "How'd you sleep?" Esme asks her. Alice grunts dully. "Did he wake you up?" Esme's smile fades to a look of worry. "Again?" Alice nods and lifts her mug. "And he never has nightmares after dialysis. Every freakin' night, 147

now." "Shit, I know," Emmett concurs loudly as he enters the kitchen. "How'd you hear him? Your room is all the way down the hall." "Light sleeper, remember?" Emmett opens the breadbox and Alice leans back on her chair legs, arm extended. He tosses her a muffin without looking. "I think it's the Prednisone," she says. The Cullens are such gossips. It's thrilling. They talk so casually behind Edward's back and justify it with love. The object in question this morning appears at the kitchen door just as Alice pours her third mug of java and Emmett goes for a fourth muffin. Edward looks like hell ­ the circles under his eyes couldn't possibly get any darker ­ and he shuffles his feet instead of walking. "Morning sweetie," Esme says. Edward doesn't respond. He just stands in the door like an idiot and stares at me. "Hi." "Hi." He looks at the breakfast table suspiciously, like this is all an elaborate setup designed to conceal some ulterior motive. "Sit down," Emmett says. So he does. Slowly ­ like he's wary of his own family. "Plans for today?" I ask. Edward studies my face and shakes his head no. "We'll stay here, then." Edward nods and Alice slides the tub of yogurt his way for breakfast. It takes him a few minutes, eating plain yogurt amid his family's morning chatter, but eventually a smile does creep onto his face. We spend the day on his turf, moving at his pace. Most of the morning is wiled away at the piano, messing around together or listening to him play. He's totally transported when he plays. Something about music takes him to a higher plane while I stay below, watching him float with that special smile on his face. When I ask him where he "goes" when he plays his face turns red and he shrugs. "Nowhere, I guess." I let him have his secret, because I don't want him to stop playing around me. I enjoy his music too much. After lunch we go for a walk. The rain holds off long enough for us to stroll to the corner and back, discussing bands. He likes The Eels but can't stand Spiral Beach. He knows Great Big Sea but has never heard of Spirit of the West (how is that even fucking possible?) and he thinks that Beggar's Banquet is the best of the Stones' albums. "Nuh-uh, Exile on Main Street. Maybe Emotional Rescue as a close second, but only maybe." "Oh what do you know?" he dismisses me with a scoff. "I bet you can't stand Neil Young too, right?" "Are you nuts? Who doesn't like Neil Young? I bet you think Wintersleep is fluff." "Nuh-uh. The Tragically Hip are over-rated, right?" "If you honestly think that you're a stunned twat, Cullen." When we get back to the house, Esme is singing in her office. The night of rough sleep and an active morning have tired Edward, so we go into the living room and put on a movie. He chooses Addams Family Values. "Seriously?" "Why not?" He smiles. I sit at the end of the couch while he lies down on his side. He curls up at first, trying to give me space, but he looks so cramped that I take his ankles and pull his feet onto my lap. "Do you mind?" "Not at all." I'm probably spoiling him, giving him a day of my undivided attention and a foot-rub too, but I really should make up for trying to cut him out last week, and he basks so sweetly in the attention that I can't help but give him more. 148

"Thanks," he murmurs as I massage his soles. I try to pull his sock off but he draws his foot back to stop me. He winces at my questioning look and says, "I'm anemic. My feet are always cold." "Okay. Socks stay on." Edward has very ticklish feet. I have to massage slowly and carefully, or he spazzes all over the couch and makes the funniest little "ack!" sound. I don't do it on purpose...much. Edward is fighting to keep his eyes open when the movie ends, but he tries to stay awake and be a good host. But he's so obviously tired, and I offer to leave. "No, stay, please. Do you want to look around the library?" He knows how to tempt me. When we go upstairs I head straight for the Shakespeare. Esme's anthology has better side notes than my second-hand copy, with beautiful prints of important scenes inserted amid the acts. It's a lovely book, with a leather cover and strong spine. The smooth pages smell like oak-gall ink ­ the printer had a sense of history. "You're quite an adorable nerd," Edward tells me. He slouches against the bookcase, smirking at me. The poor guy looks ready to drop. "You need a nap." His smirk falters, but he doesn't argue outright. "I'll be okay." I can't decide if it's sweet or stupid of him to lie like that just because I'm a guest. "Come on." I link my arm with his. "I'll read in your room." I make myself comfy against the headboard while Edward excuses himself to the washroom. Beyond the bathroom door I can hear the sound of a pill sorter being opened and a cup filling at the tap. He didn't want to take his medication in front of me. I guess I owe him one now, since he's being so considerate. He understands that it flips a switch in me to know what poisons he's taking. When Edward comes out of the bathroom he tries to sit next to me against the headboard. "Your neck will cramp if you fall asleep like that." He grimaces. "You don't mind if I sleep a little bit?" "Of course not. You need it. And I've got Banquo and Company for entertainment." I tap the cover of the Shakespeare collection. I decided on Macbeth while arranging the pillows, since I haven't read it in forever. Edward lies down on his side, facing me, and folds his arms loosely around his front. He closes his eyes and sighs purposefully, but the silence is awkward. "You don't have to stay in here if you don't want to," he offers. It would be rude to say, "Shut up, you goof," so I open the book to the first act of MacBeth and read aloud. He's asleep in less than five minutes. Absolutely no appreciation for classic literature.... I read the first act of Macbethbefore my back starts to cramp from sitting against the headboard. I close the book softly and very, very carefully move off the bed to stretch. Edward slumbers on without the slightest hint that he registered my movement. Still, I don't want to disturb him by climbing back onto the mattress, so I pull out his desk chair and turn it around so I can watch him sleep. I enjoy doing that far too much. The first time I watched Edward sleep, it was on the lawn that first Saturday he showed up at my house. His feet twitched in his sleep and his mouth fell open slightly. He looked like a little boy, tuckered out and bundled up. And then there was Easter weekend, when he had the blankets pulled up to his chin and his cheek squished against the pillow. I thought it was funny that he napped with his hat on, but Edward is so self-conscious I shouldn't have been surprised. He probably only takes his hat off to bathe and sleep through the night. 149

"What a strange creature you are," I whisper to his sleeping back. His breath comes softly through slightly parted lips. The last time I watched him sleep, just this past Saturday, he did so with the defeat and peace of a dead man. He didn't twitch or stir, except to whimper in pain. His cheeks were still lined with red tracks from crying ­ it's the chemicals in him; his own tears are enough to burn the skin slightly. The tracks ran directly down both cheeks from his lids because his sparse, fledgling lashes weren't enough to funnel the moisture out the corners of his eyes. Edward's fingers twitch. Maybe he's dreaming about piano. They flutter and relax several times, but he doesn't wake. His breathing changes in REM sleep. No longer quite even, he makes little snuffling sounds when his fingers twitch. When his hands quit, his feet start. They tremor just slightly and his toes curl. "What are you dreaming about?" I whisper with a smile. If I asked waking Edward, he probably wouldn't tell me. He would call me nosey and demand to know why I was watching him like some sort of creep. Maybe I am a creep. I do enjoy watching him sleep. When his face is relaxed it's easy to see what he must have looked like as a little boy. As long as I'm being a creep, I might as well make it worthwhile. I open the drawer of his nightstand and peek at the contents. Cullen is quite the packrat. I carefully sift through three half-empty medication bottles, a lot of crumpled receipts, notes-to-self composed in acronyms and half-sentences, and elastic bands of all shapes and sizes. There's also a postcard wedged in the back of the drawer. It's one of those generic ones with a picture of a sunset over the beach and Wish you were here! on the front. I flip it over and find a short note in very feminine penmanship: Hey, Cancer! Give up while you still can! You're never going to beat him. He's too strong for you! I throw the postcard back in the drawer and shut it tight. Jesus Christ... Edward snuffles again and I lean over him to make sure the pillow isn't blocking his air supply. His jaw is relaxed, but his eyes are tight and worried-looking. His fingers twitch again ­ looking for something, maybe? Whatever he's dreaming doesn't seem all that pleasant. I put a hand around his shoulder and call his name softly. Edward wakes with a gasp and jerks his arm up, like I'm a threat that needs to be pushed away. I grab his wrist before he can hit me in the face and push it back down. "You're okay ­ it's me." He still isn't quite awake. I hold both his wrists against his front like a human straightjacket. "You were dreaming." "Fuck," he whispers, and pulls in several deep breaths as though he's been starving for air. "Nightmare?" Alice said he'd been having them lately. Edward makes a hum that passes for yes. "What was it about?" "Drowning," he answers shortly, and sucks in a steadying breath. "It's okay. I've got you." I kiss his ear softly. "You're alive and well." Edward turns his head to look at me over his shoulder. "I'm not well." He said it with the surprise and disappointment of a kid learning that Santa isn't real. Break my heart, why doesn't he? "Regardless, I've still got you." I give him a little squeeze to prove it. Edward turns his face away again, but squeezes me back where our arms overlap across his front. "You must have been cold. You're more likely to have nightmares when you are. I'm sorry I didn't realize ­ I would have covered you up." "Why are you so fucking nice to me?" he says bitterly. I smile at the back of his head and nudge his temple with my nose. "Because you're such a fucking peach." That deflates him a little. "Sorry." 150

"Don't worry about it." Edward carefully dislodges my arms and sits up. He scrubs a hand over his face to clear his eyes and pulls his hat lower over his ears. "How long was I out for?" "I don't know. I wasn't keeping track." He swings his legs out of bed and stops there. For a moment he just sits there and studies me, frowning slightly, like there's something puzzling about the way I look. Then he reaches out and grabs the sleeve of my sweater. Edward pulls on me so hard that I practically fall off the chair and onto his lap. He couldn't just ask for a hug like a normal person ­ if this can be called a hug. It feels more like he's trying to squeeze the living fucking breath out of me. "Air!" I gasp, and he lets go all at once. I lose my balance and fall flat on my ass. "Shit! I'm so sorry." Edward puts a hand on my arm to help me up but I brush him off. "Fuck it." I lay back on the floor to regain my breath. "I'll be down here." "Are you okay?" "Fine. My ass broke my fall." He doesn't appreciate my attempt at humor. He looks sick with worry, which makes me laugh. "It's not funny." "Sure it is." "Let me help you up." I let him this time. He refuses to try to sleep some more, but he's too tired for us to do much. We end up playing crazy eights on his bed until suppertime. It's the dorkiest, most calming afternoon I've had in awhile. We play for about an hour before Edward's eyes really start to droop again. I talk less, wondering if he would actually fall asleep without conversation to keep him awake. His is a subtle transition between waking and sleeping. His eyelids close, but he holds onto his cards awhile before his wrist relaxes and they slip through his fingers. I gather up the cards and set them on the nightstand. He doesn't need more nightmares, so I cover him up too. I consider seeking the company of Esme or Alice while Edward sleeps, but I don't really want to leave this room. Edward has a knack for objects, if you know what I mean. He knows how to arrange otherwise random, meaningless things to reflect his personality. Why should a scattered collection of bottle caps on his dresser say 'Edward?' I don't know, but it does. So I study the room, studying him. He isn't big on books, but there are a lot of notebooks on his shelf. They're the kind designed for music students, with blank staves instead of lines. I flip through a few and find compositions I can't read. The pages are thin with countless erasings and there are slash marks across sections that he scrapped in a rush. I wish I could really read this. I want to know what kind of sounds creep through his mind when he's in a creative mood. Then I find the black notebook. It's set up like a day calendar. It started last July, and on each day he has kept a record of what medications he took, how much and what he ate, and his symptoms. I shut the book as fast as I can and put it back on the shelf. Mom kept a book like that for Grandma, to show the doctors what was happening when they weren't around. I don't want to look at his book, and I bet he doesn't either. That part is behind him. I take Edward's desk chair into the corner, where the sun shines in warmly, and open his nightstand drawer. I bet I can make a ball the size of a plum with all the stray rubber bands he has in here. It's almost an hour later that Edward wakes with a yawn. He looks around the room blearily, moving his eyes from the deck of cards on the opposite nightstand to the closed door, and sits up on his elbow with a deflated look. "Do you need more sleep?" 151

He jumps when he realizes that I'm in the corner behind him. "Shit, Swan," he curses. He looks at the ball in my hands and says, "What are you doing?" "Playing with rubbers." My little joke gets a smile out of him. "Did you think I left?" I nod to the door. He was practically pouting in that direction a moment ago. Edward nods. "Yeah. Sorry I dozed off. I'm not very interesting company." He sits up and swings his legs out of bed, rolling his shoulders to slowly stretch. "Thanks for staying." Edward gives me a small smile that reveals way more gratitude than I can handle. He's still waiting for me to run off again while he isn't looking. "Do I owe you an explanation for...you know?" "Last week?" "Yeah." Edward shifts slightly, contemplating. "If you don't want to..." "But I should." "It would be...appreciated," he says, choosing his words carefully. I can see why the subject makes him skittish. I might talk myself into cutting him out again. I put the rubber band ball back in his drawer and stand up. My first thought is to sit next to him on the bed, but then I think better of it. I don't want to give this conversation the feel of a mushy heart-toheart. I want to just explain my shit and get it over with. After a few seconds Edward catches on that I'm just going to stand here like an idiot without sitting down. He reaches out for my hand and jostles it a little. "Tell me." His hand is warm and slightly sticky from sleep. "I don't... I don't like it when people control me. Or manipulate me. Or when people try to pull shit over on me. It..." I drop his hand and run mine through my hair. "This isn't coming out right. This is the shittiest explanation ever." Edward smirks. "I can imagine worse." He snorts softly and his smirk fades. "Are you sure you don't want me to leave you alone?" "That's the thing, I don't." Edward tries and fails to hide his sense of relief. "But you scare the shit out of me." "I'm sorry I worried you. I don't usually forget me meds like that." "I don't mean that. But as long as we're on the subject, don't do that again." He chuckles at me. "I'll try not. Is it the...dying part that scares you?" I try not to think about the fact that he could easily relapse at any time. That is an 'if' that I don't have enough brain cells to panic about from moment to moment. "No." "So what did you mean?" An automatic hunch creeps over his shoulders. He's so self-conscious that he's conditioned to brace for pain. "It's frightening that...that if you asked nicely I'd probably give you anything you wanted; even the things I don't want to give." He swallows and curls his fingers on his knees. "You have the power to suck me dry and I absolutely hate you for it." Edward takes my hand and turns it over, brushing his thumb across my palm. "I won't, you know. I wouldn't do that to you." I try to smile, but all I can manage is a spasm of my upper lip. "Then I guess I'll have to hate you a little less." "You know..." He turns my hand again, studying my fingernails like they're really interesting. "Good people don't suck each other dry. They give as much as they take. Friends do that, you know." 152

He looks up at me like I'm supposed to say something back. "I'm not good with stuff like that." I don't even know what to call it. He makes it sound like a blood transfusion that goes both ways. "You'll learn," he says, and squeezes my hand. "It's okay to take, too, Bella. You don't have to give all the time." The clock on his nightstand beeps to announce the turnover of the hour. It's five-o-clock. "I should go. My dad can barely make Spaghetti-O's." I slip my hand out of his grasp and his hovers there for a few seconds, like he wants me to put mine back. Edward reluctantly says goodbye to me ­ after extending an invitation to dinner no less than three times. "Would you like to have dinner with us tomorrow?" he says when all attempts to get me to stay tonight fail. "I can't," I tell him as he walks me to the door. "I made plans with Angela." "Oh, okay. Some other time, maybe." He almost manages to hide his disappointment, too. I can't help but think Poor guy as I give him a one-armed hug goodbye. He might be in better shape if he'd gotten sick in Seattle, where he had friends to rally around him. This perpetual loneliness isn't good for him ­ it's made him a philosopher on ideal friendship, of all things. Like such a thing even exists. It didn't in Phoenix, and it won't in Forks. Not for me, and not for him either, judging by the way people treat him at school. No one appreciates Edward properly, anyway. All they see is his disease. He's beautiful, and you don't have to look that closely to see it. You just have to look.

Monday

I have to study for Spanish today at lunch, because I can't possibly cram enough for this test. I scarf down half a sandwich en route to the library. Mrs. Gilmore gives me a dirty look when I walk in still chewing the last of it, so I stand in the vestibule and glare at her until I swallow. Nitpicky librarians... The carrels are all full, so I circle around to the area of worktables. These aren't used as much because Domme Gilmore watches them like a hawk and chews out anybody who raises their voice above a whisper to speak to their colleagues around the table. I park myself at an empty table and set my books up across the surface. I take up as much space as possible to throw people off the idea of sitting near me ­ I need to study. Herr Gilmore gives me the eye for using the opposite chair as a footrest. My shoes aren't even muddy, damn it. I feel a tug at the back of my head and a twist as a lock of my hair gets wrapped around a finger. Ugh. Jessica greeted me like this last week, when she was entertaining thoughts of giving me a new haircut for fun. Flattery is always the best way to distract Jessica, so I say, "Hey Gorgeous." My hair stops twisting. I look over my shoulder and instead of petite Jessica Stanley standing there, it's Edward. Fucking hell, he's going to tease the crap out of me for saying hello like that. "Uh, hi." He stares at me for a few seconds, slowly unwinding my hair from his index finger, before he pulls out the adjacent seat and sits down. "Hey Beautiful," he says quietly, not looking at me. I can't decide if he's trying to embarrass, guilt, or tease me. Edward reaches under the table for my backpack. "I'm borrowing your bio notes." Normally I would be annoyed by the fact that he didn't ask before taking, but part of my grade is tied to his, so I let him catch up on the material without complaint. As long as he copies my notes quietly and doesn't 153

interrupt my cram session, I will try to abide his presence. "Who did you think I was?" he asks as he flips through my notebook. "Jessica." "Reeeally?" "Bugger off." Edward smirks as he lazily copies my diagram of the Krebs Cycle. He starts to sing under his breath, "Bella and Jessica, sitting in a tree -" My lab partner has the intellect of a third grader. I haven't heard that song since primary school. "Shut up." I bump my shoulder against his. Edward bumps me back. "F ­u ­c ­k ­i ­n ­g," he continues, trying not to laugh. "First comes love, then comes a civil union in Vermont, then comes..." He pauses to think. "Baster babies?" "You are a moron, Cullen," I say slowly ­ since he is a moron. "But I can still set up a camera in the corner, right?" It's unbelievably difficult to resist the urge to bitch-slap him with my notebook. But I can't let him get a rise out of me. Then he wins. "Fine, set up a camera." He laughs at me. "I need to study." Edward steals my book from under my elbow and flips through it. Damn it, I lost my page. "Could there be a more useless language to teach us this far from the border?" he wonders aloud. "You'd think Chinese would be more logical this far north on the west coast." I lean over to grab my book back and Edward scoots his chair sideways, holding the book out of my reach. "Cullen," I warn him. "Want me to quiz you?" "No, I want you to give me my book back and shut the hell up so I can learn this shit." He doesn't listen. "Cómo estás?" "I'm ready to punch you, that's how I am." Edward smirks and shakes his head. "Ah, dicen que en Español." "This isn't an oral test, it's a written one. Give me the book." "You'll remember it better if you speak it." Still, he hands my book back. I start flipping to find my original page and he says, "Le deseo sabía cuánto me gusta usted." I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of watching me look up what the hell that means. Stupid smug polyglots. To his credit, Edward dutifully shuts up and lets me work for the rest of the period. He copies my biology notes into his notebook, getting sidetracked every now and then to doodle in the margins. At the end of the hour he packs up my notes and puts them back in my bag. "Why do you keep all this shit in here?" he says when he opens my backpack. I don't think I've cleaned that thing out since sixth grade. Atlantis could be buried at the bottom for all I know. "It's a necessary mess," I tell him. I just don't feel like cleaning it. Someday the problem will get so bad that I'll just have to give up and torch the whole backpack. Edward starts going through my mess, picking and reading scraps of notes taken Lord knows when. He finds about six empty pens, a few dead batteries, band-aids for gym class, and a crumpled bag of mints. "And I thought my sister's purse was bad," he mutters. "Oh shut it." He pulls out a piece of folded notepaper and pauses. He studies it for a second, peeking past the corner, and then looks over at me. "Did you even read it?" 154

I snatch the note out of his hand and stuff it down my shirt. I did read his apology note, thank you very much. And I hung onto it too. "Bella?" "I read it, okay? Fuck off." "How come -" I clap a hand over his mouth. "We're not going to talk about this right now." Edward mumbles something behind my hand that sounds like "When?" Uh, never? When I'm drunk? When the Wizard of Oz beams down and puts a watchamacallit in my chest? "When we're ninety-six, okay? Save the date." I take my hand off his face, grab my books and my backpack off his lap, and bolt. Sometimes I wonder why Angela hangs out with Jessica and Lauren ­ she's so genuine and they're so not. Her parents are out of town for the evening and she asked me to help her watch her little brothers ­ a favor I wouldn't have done for anyone else. But Angela is an angel, and it turns out the Weber boys are extremely well behaved. She asks me how Edward is as we put together supper for the kids. For a second I panic ­ does she know about the fight on Saturday? Did she notice I avoided him all week? Does she know about the note on my windshield? Or is she referring to the whole day I spent with him yesterday? But then I realize that these worries are senseless ­ no one notices Edward, except in a bad way, and he's the only other person who could have spread the news of our fight. Who would he have told? "He's okay." "Just okay?" "He's better than he was." Angela nods. "He can be really sweet, can't he?" "When he wants to be, yeah." Angela smiles and slathers more peanut butter on a celery slice. She's making frogs on a log with raisins. "I think you two would be a really cute couple." The way she says it surprises me more than the statement itself; she's not scheming or giggly or sarcastic. She says it like she means it. And as for the statement itself ­ for some reason it doesn't surprise me. It feels natural, which is fucking weird. "I don't think that either of us is in a relationship mindset." Angela shrugs. "It was just a thought. You two seem like really good friends." We are. And it works that way. Perfectly. Right?

Tuesday

I'm on my way to math class, praying that Mr. Varner won't give us a pop quiz on the latest material, when Jessica comes up beside me and gives me a friendly elbow. "So you and Tyler are going to prom together?" She grins and giggles gleefully. "What?" "You and Tyler." "Where did you hear that?" "I heard it from Mike." "And where did he hear it?" "From Lauren, who heard it from Eric, who heard it from Tyler." 155

I shake my head. "That guy must have really good weed." To think I'm going to prom is one thing. To think I'm going with him is another, especially after he didn't really ask me in the grocery store. And I thought I made myself clear before the Spring Dance - I don't do any sort of coordinated movement to the tune of music. "So you're not going with him?" I roll my eyes and give Jessica the What do you think? look. She hums knowingly and links her arm with mine. "Nothing wrong with playing hard to get." "What? No, I -" "We should totally go shopping together. Mike hasn't asked me yet, but I think he will." Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fack! She starts to babble about some department store in Port Angeles. I can't stand this. I can feel a panic attack coming on at the mere thought of streamers and fruit punch and dancing. "Excuse me." I duck away from Jessica as we pass Edward's locker. I'm probably standing too close to him, but it's to my benefit because Jess hangs back, too skittish to approach him. "I need a distraction," I whisper. Edward looks down at me for a split second and then pretends to gag. He covers his mouth with his hand and lurches, and Jessica takes off before she has to watch him vomit in the hallway. As soon as she's gone Edward drops the act and smirks. "What was that about?" "About five bucks worth?" He holds out his hand and I dig a five-dollar bill out of my pocket for him. He takes it with a smug smile. "Are you going to tell me?" "Nope. It was either five bucks or information, and you chose the money." "Swan," he complains. "Cullen," I mimic his tone. "I'll puke on you for real." "I'm shaking in my boots." I steal a pen out of his open locker and step around him to get to class. "Later, Cullen." Edward's stupid pen explodes on me in math class. Fucking karma or what? I scrub my hand raw when I get home from school, but the blue won't fade completely. When Edward saw the stain in biology he laughed at me and said, "That's what you get, you little thief." Bastard. Angela was wrong. We wouldn't be a cute couple. We'd be a couple that annoys each other to death. We only work as friends. But hate sex has its merits... I make beer batter fish for supper, do two loads of laundry, and polish off an English essay before climbing into bed that night. Edward doesn't text me about music like he usually does, so I assume he's tired and went to bed early. That's fine by me. He hasn't been sleeping well, anyway. But just in case, I send him a Goodnight text. He doesn't get back to me. Poor guy must be out cold. I'm almost completely asleep when the buzzing of my phone wakes me up. I roll over, taking my time about it, and check the clock before I pick up my phone. It's nearly midnight. This better be good. "Hello?" "Bella?" I notice the difference in his voice immediately. It isn't smooth or sleepy or hopeful, like it usually is when he calls me at night ­ it's low and shaky and distant. "What's wrong?" His breath sounds like he's shivering. I sit up and draw my knees in, ready to swing them out of bed and...what? Drive over there in the middle of the night? 156

"Not feeling well." His voice is so tight that it trembles with the effort to remain level. "Are your parents home? Alice?" "They know," he assures me. "I told them to leave me alone. They can't help." "What's the matter?" "Stomach." I can hear his wince over the phone. And he doesn't show pain willingly unless he's in serious agony. "I know it sounds counterproductive, but sometimes the best thing when you feel sick is to try to puke." Edward groans softly on the other end of the line. "I did. A lot. There's nothing to bring up anymore, but I still feel horrible." And he was feeling so well just this morning. "You took two Oxy, didn't you?" "Yeah," he admits with defeat. "I was hurting..." "You don't have to justify it to me." Edward blows out a fortifying sigh. "Can you...distract me? Please?" "Uh...I'm going to kill Tyler Crowley tomorrow?" Edward snorts. "Why?" "The idiot thinks we're going to prom together." "Why would he think that? You don't dance." "I know! God, he's such a twat. I ran into him last week and he made some passing reference to prom and I guess I must have nodded ever so slightly... He's a moron." "We'll make plans that night," he promises quietly. "Give you an excuse not to go." "Thanks." His quick breathing turns sharp. "Edward?" "It hurts," he murmurs. I can just picture him curled up in the fetal position, holding his stomach and sweating in pain. And he sent everyone away ­ he wanted to suffer this alone. Well, sort of, if the phone call doesn't count. I know what he means; when there is nothing anyone can do, and attendance would make others fret, it's best to beg solitude. "Are you in bed right now?" I ask softly. I use that slow, sleepy voice that parents of young children use to coax their little ones to bed. "Yeah." "Can you feel your heart beating?" "What?" "Without touching your chest ­ are you aware of your heart beating?" For a few seconds the only sound on the line is his shallow breathing. It slows just slightly before he whispers, "Yes." "And can you feel the soles of your feet? Are they cold or hot?" "Cold." "Do you feel your heartbeat there?" This time it takes him longer to answer. "Yes." "Feel it in your ankles." His breaths turn long and deep as he moves the sensation from feet to ankles; ankles to calves; calves to knees. He breathes in time with his pulse without realizing it, and it calms him. "Can you feel the blood leaving your heart? Picture it flowing through your arteries, directly to your lungs." He pulls in a deep breath. "Feel how smoothly your diaphragm moves?" "Yeah." He breathes it so softly I can barely hear him. "Feel it pushing the air up and up, into your throat?" 157

He makes a hum that sounds like a yes. "Can you feel your heartbeat in your nose?" "Mmm." "In your gums?" "Uh-huh." He's gotten quick at locating his heartbeat in remote places. He's in tune with his body now, instead of fighting with it. "Your eyes are closed, aren't they?" "Yeah." "What do the insides of your lids look like?" "Dark." He adds a timid, "I like it," a moment later. "Do you hear blood in your ears?" "Yes." "What does it say?" Edward hesitates over that one. "I...I don't know." "But it's a nice sound, isn't it?" "Yeah." "It's okay to fall asleep." "I know." "Can you?" "I don't want to." "Why?" His breathing is slow, sleepy, and it takes him nearly ten seconds to answer my question. "I don't want to be alone." "You're not. It's you, your heartbeat, and me. And I'll be here until you fall asleep." He breathes a little sigh of relief. "Thank you."

158

13. April 9 to 15

Tuesday

I wake up on my side, dozy and achy, to find Alice sleeping next to me. She must have crawled in sometime after I fell asleep talking to Bella. She's curled up to save space, tucked in under the afghan from the couch, and cradling the phone close to her chest. She must have pulled it out of my hand while I was passed out. Poor Al. She looks so tired and worried. I softly run a hand across her short hair and she wakes with a start. "W'as wrong?" she says sleepily. She isn't even really awake yet. "Nothing. You're just tired. Go back to sleep." I open an arm to her and she crawls into the nook of my chest and shoulder. She's so small and light-boned, like a little bird. It only takes her a few seconds to slip into sleep again, and though I feel guilty for making her worry, I'm too tired to stay awake to dwell on it for long. I find Bella first thing when I get to school. She's got her locker open ­ it's a complete mess ­ and is holding a pen between her teeth and a book under her arm while she rifles through her backpack. "What are you digging for this time?" "China," she says around the pen. "Fuck it." She spits out the pen and throws her backpack in her locker. I nudge her shoulder to get her to look at me. "Thanks," I tell her. "For...last night." I make sure to say it quietly so that people won't overhear and make assumptions about the police chief's daughter and Cancer Boy. Such a rumor would be humiliating for her by nature, and humiliating for me when everyone learns that it isn't true. "No problem." "Where'd you learn that?" "It's a useful little survival skill," she answers vaguely. She never can give a straight answer. "I have lunch for you today," she offers. My eyes immediately flit to her locker and she shifts in front of it, blocking me. "No, you can't have it now." I laugh and tell her that I'll just break into her locker while she's in Spanish. Bella rolls her eyes at me. "It's good for aches as well as your stomach." My eyes shift to her locker again, but not with the same sort of eager curiosity, before settling back on her face. She went out of her way this morning to make sure I don't have a repeat of last night. "Thank you." Bella smiles, but she doesn't look happy. She shuts her locker and says, "See you at lunch." I don't pay much attention to my first lecture. I'm too busy wondering whether I fucked things up by calling Bella last night. Did I stir up some painful memory? Did I hurt her? Did I take too much, again? It's not like I asked her to make me food, either. I mean, of course I'll still scarf it down at lunch like it's the last remaining food on earth, but she didn't have to make it.... I try to apologize to her when she hands over the thermos at lunch, but she won't hear it. "The last thing you need is a guilt complex about food on top of everything else." "So forgive me." 159

Bella sighs tiredly. "Fine. I forgive you for accepting a gift you didn't ask for." "Now you're just trying to guilt me." She tries to take the thermos back and I hold it out of her reach. It's mine, damn it. "Please, just eat." It's a smoothie today ­ raspberry yogurt, buttermilk, and mint. It tastes like fresh sorbet mated with a cheesecake. I want to bathe in this stuff. "Can I have the recipe?" "What if I said no?" "You wouldn't." "Wouldn't I?" I try pouting and she tells me there's something wrong with my lip. "Is it working?" "Nope." "What about if I just do this all through lunch and bio?" I nudge her repeatedly with my boney elbow - not hard enough to hurt, but persistent enough to be really annoying. Bella takes a folded piece of notebook paper out of her pocket and holds it up. I snatch it from her fingers before she can change her mind and retract it, and she laughs at my eagerness. It isn't until I get home and unfold the paper that I realize it doesn't have the recipe on it. It says, You pick the music tonight. I'd be entirely peeved about the recipe rip-off if she didn't already have me thinking through potential playlists for tonight. I call Bella around ten-o-clock and immediately forget to give her shit for gypping me out of a recipe ­ it's entirely her fault. She distracts me with the way she answers the phone: "Hey. Hang on a second, ok?" "Sure. Everything alright?" "Yeah. I wasn't expecting you to call yet. I only have half a pair of pajamas on." And she feels the need to just casually reveal that to me? Like I'm not going to picture it and turn into a drooling, incoherent mess? Bella sets aside her phone and I can hear the soft sounds of her pulling on clothes nearby. I wonder if she was missing her pants or shirt.... "What are we listening to tonight?" she asks. "See if you can name them." I play her "Comes a Time," by Neil Young, because she reminded me of it last weekend. She names that one without trouble, including the album it was released on. "Why don't you play an instrument? You're so invested in music." "I'm musically incompetent. What else you got?" I give her "Picking up the Pieces" by Blue October. She's surprised that I own their CD. "I didn't think they were your style." "My tastes are wide and varied." And the CD was a gift, anyway. I try to lighten the mood with the cheesy pop song "Every Other Time" by LFO. Bella practically busts a gut laughing and says she hopes I bought that CD before I hit puberty, because anything else is just sad. "Alright, fine, smartass." I continue in the same vein with "Absolutely" by Nine Days. Bella approves of that one more, but only slightly. We cap off the evening with "Old Habits Die Hard" by Mick Jagger. "Tomorrow it's my turn," she says before we say goodnight. "Make it good." 160

"You doubt me?" "Never." "Sweet dreams." She hangs up without properly saying goodbye. I try not to take offense to that, but the fact that the call ended is enough to irritate me either way. I never want to end a call with her.

Wednesday

The guy looking back at me in the bathroom mirror looks like hell. He looks like he hasn't slept well and hasn't had a decent meal in months. Sounds like someone I know. I splash cool water over my face in an attempt to wake up. I slept, sure, but I don't feel rested. I've been having nightmares on a regular basis lately, even after dialysis, which usually puts me too far under to dream. Maybe it's the meds, or the food. It could be a fucking brain tumor for all I know, but my regular bloodwork would have shown that. I'm reluctant to blame it on the meds entirely, because it's always the same nightmare. If it was creepy dreams in general, sure. But the same one over and over again must mean something. I dream of Bella drowning. The first time it happened I was in the public garden Mom helped design when I was a kid, holding a duck under my arm like a football. The duck just hung there limply and let me carry him around, quacking occasionally. There wasn't even much point to the dream until Bella showed up. She said the duck was hers and I should give it back, so I did. She took it into one of the park ponds, swimming and diving below the murky surface. The duck kept swimming above her lapping waves. Bella never came back up. The dreams are always different, but she always drowns: a cliff-diving accident; unconscious at the bottom of a swimming pool; as a little kid alone in a bathtub; swept out to sea in a riptide. And every single time I stand there watching her die, unable to do anything about it, or even to reach out and retrieve her body. Last night she drowned in a car that had crashed into a creek. I stood on the bridge and watched the air pockets in the car rise to the surface until the water became still, and all I could see was the outline of the bumper beneath the current. I suppose I should be glad she hasn't pulled a Virginia Woolf in my dreams yet. You know, in the spirit of optimism and all. Bella takes one look at me when I get to school, before I can even tell her good morning, and says, "You look like you slept under a bus." "I did, actually. I clung to the underside like a bat and dozed." She cracks a smile and today isn't going to be so bad after all. I've got a good feeling about this one. My lazy English teacher finally gives our tests back today. We only wrote them a month ago, and the essay portion instructed us not to write more than four paragraphs ­ it shouldn't have taken so long to mark. What an irresponsible asshole. I find fault in him because it sucks bad enough that I'm bombing this class without blaming myself. He lays the test papers face down on our desks as he walks around, talking about how we're all dumb as dirt for using the occasional sentence fragment. Why put the papers face down? To pretend that there's some confidentiality here? I don't want to look at mine. I don't want to think about taking this class over in summer school. It's purely incidental that I glimpse the red letter at the top of the first page as I jam the test into my notebook. No fucking way. 161

I barely have time to close the car door before Alice turns around in the front seat and practically shouts, "I sat with him at lunch today!" "Are you deaf, too?" I yell back. Alice grins and flaps her hands like a demented circus monkey. "He's planning to work at Camp Tillingsworth this summer. Isn't that sweet? He said -" I don't care what he said. I hate him already. People work at Camp Tillingsworth when they want to put brownie points on their college application ­ it's one of those "inclusive" camps that caters to disabled kids and integrates all their activities with "normies." An admissions committee will eat that shit up faster than if he wrote, "I saved a box of puppies from a burning building" on his entrance essay. "Does his girlfriend work there too?" I ask. Alice's face falls just a little at the mention of Maria. "No. She works at the IGA." "Gotta save for college somehow." "I've been thinking of where to apply for summer work." Please - God, Buddha, Allah, Krishna - not Camp Tillingsworth. "Maybe Dad could put in a good word for you at the hospital cafeteria." Alice makes a face. She's about as sick of hospitals as I am. "Maybe I'll end up at the IGA." What the hell is she playing at? I miss the latter half of Bella's playlist tonight. Her first pick is "Weighty Ghost" by Wintersleep, which is sort of a relaxing song, and I can't keep my eyes open for most of "Hey Man" by the Eels. I lose consciousness during the opening chorus of a song I don't recognize by a band I've never heard before. Tonight I don't dream.

Thursday

Before I get out of bed I text Bella: What was the last song you played? I knew you fell asleep, is her response ­ unhelpful as ever. I have to outright demand the title and band before she sends me a text that looks like a series of spelling errors: "Hoppípolla," Sigur Rós. The fuck? I drag myself out of bed and head downstairs for breakfast, only to find my English test is staring me in the face. It's stuck to the fridge with a magnet like I'm five fucking years old. "What the hell?" I snatch it off the fridge and Mom says, "Hey, put that back." "Did you put it up?" "I'm very proud of you." She kisses my cheek and ignores my bad mood. It feels like she's rubbing it in that this is the first A- I've earned in a long time. It's a surprisingly short fall between straight A's and straight D's. "Things will turn around now," she says confidently. "You're getting your energy back. You can study hard and be your brilliant self." Studying. Shit. I owe Bella a big fat thank-you. I casually slip the test paper into Bella's locker when I arrive to say good morning to her. She misses nothing. Bella snatches the paper right back out of her locker like I just tried to hide incriminating evidence there, and frowns when she sees it's just a stupid English test. She hums appreciatively at the mark. "Nice job." She high-fives me ­ like I'm a little kid. But fuck it, because I use it as an excuse to hold her hand 162

for a few seconds after. "Thanks for your help." "You thank me too much." She hands back the test paper and shuts her locker. "You don't have to grovel. I'm not going anywhere." And on that fucking bizarre note she turns and walks away to class. I thank her too much? For everything she gives me, it's the only mannerly thing to do. She needs to work on this whole taking thing, because I don't know what to give her unless she asks. I am so bored. The homework I brought to the clinic for the three-hour wait has long since been finished, and the volunteer with the book cart had no good magazines to offer. It was a choice between Teen Vogue and Fisherman's Quarterly. Pass. I'm busy counting the ceiling tiles when the curtain around my chair shifts. Bella slips into the cubicle in an oversized grey sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, like she's trying not to be seen, and takes up the visitor's chair. "What are you doing here?" "Visiting." She adjusts her sweater around her. "Had to borrow this from one of the cafeteria workers. If people see the green vest they ask me to do shit." "Did you know I'd be here?" "Gerald tipped me off that you were still here," she says of the old man who pushed the book cart down this ward twenty minutes ago. "But your mom was the one who told me you had an appointment tonight." Bella chuckles to herself. "I think that woman is determined to get you laid. She'll sell your merits to anyone who will listen." "Swan," I complain. She shouldn't talk about anybody's mom like that and my (lack of) sex life is none of their business. "We had a nice chat." Bella pulls a can of soda out of one of the sweater's oversized pockets, cracks it and takes a sip. She offers it to me but I decline. "What did you talk about?" Please, in the name of all that is holy, don't let Mom have embarrassed me. It's embarrassing enough to be seen receiving treatment. Bella looks once at the tubes that enter between the gap in my button-front, and tries not to look at them again. If I'd known she was coming I would have asked the nurse for a blanket or something to hide this uncomfortable sight. "She told me that you used to win awards for music." "It was just a stupid music camp certificate." "So you didn't win some competition to play with the Seattle Philharmonic when you were like, fifteen?" Why did Mom have to go and tell her that? She probably bragged about it, too. "I don't play that seriously anymore." "Why not?" "Chemo." "I thought you were done?" "No, chemo fucked up my hands, like it did my taste buds." I extend my scarred hand to her in illustration. "Chemo kills a lot of cells that are actually useful. I lost feeling in my fingers and freaked out, so my doctor told me to drink a lot of water. I was chugging something like ten gallons a day. Not all the feeling came back, though. I can't play as well as I used to. And GVH made my hands so sore that I couldn't play for weeks at a time." "You still play very beautifully." "And you're such an expert." 163

"Your mom said you used to compose, too." "A little." "Will you show me an original piece sometime?" "Maybe." "Cullen," she says severely. Her tone is weird because she's smiling. "Fine. I'll show you some time." Bella smiles and nods with satisfaction. She takes a long sip of ginger ale and then gives me that devilish smirk that I don't trust for shit. "So you went to music camp?" "So?" "Touchy." "It was one summer." "Or five." Damn it, Mom! "Are you going this summer?" "I'll be in summer school, catching up on all the shit I missed." "That's a shame." I shrug. "It's no big deal." "Alice said it used to be the highlight of your year. 'Bigger than Christmas,' she said." "You talked to Alice about me too?" "You talk to them about me." "That's different." "Why?" "They're my family." "And they care about you very much ­ enough to gossip freely, anyway." She smiles again and swallows more of her soda. "Music just isn't a big part of my life anymore. Did they tell you that?" "Edward," Bella said calmly. Uh-oh. She's first-naming me. "That is complete and utter bullshit." "Stop acting like you know everything. You know shit about my music." "Were you in a band?" she teases. "Bunch of classical nerds together in a garage ­ piano, oboe, euphonium -" She knows what a euphonium is? "All you'd need are a couple of bowties and you're set." "Yeah? Well..." Bella looks at me expectantly while I fish around for a riposte. "Damn it, you don't have any dorky hobbies." "Ha!" "But reading Austen for fun is still nerdy as shit." "So are you not as dexterous anymore or what?" She reaches out and picks up my hand where it sits on the armrest of the recliner. She turns it over in her hand and runs her thumb along my palm. "I've still got full movement." I wiggle my fingers to show her. "I just can't moderate how hard or soft I touch things, sometimes. Piano takes that kind of finesse. It isn't like an unweighted electric keyboard, where the key makes the same tone no matter how hard you press it." Bella smirks. "So it's like the difference between a blow up doll and a real woman." "What?" "You're such a prude." "I am not, you just surprised me is all." Bella's fingers tighten around the hand she still holds in a friendly squeeze. "I get it, though. A keyboard is like a whore: it'll perform the same for anyone. A piano is like a wife: you've gotta know how to treat it right." "Sort of." 164

"So what's your favorite song to play?" "I dunno. It changes to whatever I feel like at the moment, I guess, or whatever piece I'm working on. I used to practice a lot more than I do now. I had a lot of free time on my hands before I met you." Bella smirks. That last sentence reveals too much, and my face betrays me by turning red. "I had a lot of superficial friends before I met you," she says. "Are you calling me ugly?" "I'm saying you get me." "I do?" Bella shrugs. This woman is frustrating as hell. "Do you think you get me?" she asks. "I don't understand a single word that comes out of your mouth." She laughs and tells me I'm full of shit.

Saturday

Alice makes a crack at me for running late on a Saturday as I rush around the house, getting ready. Shower, clothes, breakfast, missing keys ­ all annoying little things that get in the way of me going over to the Swan house. "What time will you be home?" Alice asks, following me around like a puppy. If she's going to do that, she could at least help me look for the car keys. "I don't know." "Maybe we can do something tonight?" "We'll see." "Edward," she whines. "What?" "You don't want to spend time with me?" "Maybe tomorrow. Call Charlotte or something." "She's busy." "So am I." Where the hell could Mom have put those fucking keys? "Can I come?" "No." "Why not? Bella likes me." "I said no, Al." "Fine. Hmph." She sits cross-legged on the kitchen floor and folds her arms, pouting profusely. She's about ten years too old to be pulling this shit. I set a cup of water and a bag of Bits'n'Bites next to her, because "Pouting is tiring work," and leave her to sulk. She'll get over it. When I walk up to the Swans' porch the door is open and there's a stickie note attached to the screen: Just come in, Cullen. I like how she expects me now. I step inside and follow the sound of the Stones' "Everybody Getting High."From the foyer I see Bella slide across the kitchen tiles on socked feet, singing along loudly. Her glide is swiftly followed by a loud crash. "Are you okay?" "Spiffy," she answers in a pained voice. I head down the hall to the kitchen and find her righting a dining chair after her collision. Bella's in her standard weekend outfit: torn jeans, oversized plaid shirt 165

(probably stolen or a hand-me-down) and holey socks. I can't imagine how she could look any better. "Good morning," she says in an overreaching attempt at dignity. My smirk really, really wants to become a full-blown grin. "Good morning." She turns away and walks into the living room, so naturally I follow. Bella has three laundry baskets on the couch and chairs and has organized the wash into several different piles on the floor and coffee table. The whole room reeks of warm laundry and I just want to get comfy and breathe it in. I have a thing about the smell of fresh laundry. I used to crawl into the dryer when I was a kid. Mom has pictures of me napping in the dryer barrel on a pile of warm towels. Bella takes a stack of folded dish towels to the kitchen. I contemplate burying my face in a nearby pile of t-shirts, but she might catch me and freak. "Want to go for a walk?" she calls from the kitchen. "It's a nice day, and I need air." "Okay." "We won't go far," she promises as she comes back to the living room. She grabs Charlie's piles of shirts, socks, and jeans and loads them all into one of the baskets. "If you need air we'll go as far as you want." "Can you handle it?" I give her a look and take the basket from her. "I'll be fine." It's a nice day ­ for Forks. The sun makes more of an impression through the cloud cover than usual, and there's a slight breeze. Bella and I stroll down her block slowly, looking at nothing while studying the neighborhood. Bella looks over at me and smiles. "Nice hat." "Thanks." It's green today. Alice took one look at me when I came downstairs this morning, sighed ruefully, and said, "Well at least it matches your eyes." "You look healthier today." "Thanks." That's a real compliment, coming from her and considering that I look the way I do. "Am I still not allowed to ask about your cancer?" "You just said I look healthy; can't we leave it at that?" "Sure." We walk in silence for a few minutes. Bella swings her arms slowly by her sides. I've got my hands in my pockets, as usual. I got into the habit as a way to hide the scars. I do it around Bella as a matter of routine, even though she said she likes my hands. Whether or not that's true is an open question. "I have a similar but related question," Bella says after awhile. "What?" I'm curious to know what it is, even though I may choose not to answer it. "How'd it feel to find out you had cancer?" I snort. "Like a bomb went off in the middle of my life. It's enough to make your skin crawl ­ knowing there's something growing inside you that can kill you ­ that is killing you." "But it didn't." "I got lucky ­ a lot." "Hot nurses?" It takes me a second to get it, and then I tell her to bugger off even as I chuckle. "Nice nurses, but not many hot ones. I had some cool roommates, though." "Tell me." "My first roommate was this guy in his twenties ­ Evan ­ and he'd been sick a few times. Lost his eyes to cancer as a kid, and shit. He had this massive stack of Braille books on the side table and he used to read them out loud, except when I knew him he had a brain tumor and he'd have these weird 166

spells where he'd forget shit and read the same passage over and over again." "Did that bug you?" "No, actually. He was just this guy who I saw as having it so much worse than me, but he was still human enough to want to read hard-boiled murder mystery novels. I liked to think that I got him in a way that the nurses and everyone else didn't, 'cause I was sick too." "Did he know he was repeating passages?" I shrug. "I never told him. I don't think any of the nurses did, either. He didn't have visitors much, to tell him he was losing his shit." Bella stops and looks at me searchingly. "He's dead now, isn't he?" "Yeah. He had a grand mal and went into a coma. His family pulled the plug after about a week." "Was it scary to watch that, being so ill yourself?" "I only saw him seize. They took him to the ICU after that, and I found his obit later and nobody dies that fast in a coma unless someone yanks the power on their ventilator." "He did have a brain tumor. That could have killed him." "I prefer to think of his barely-there family as a bunch of assholes that didn't want him hanging around on life support." "Would you want to hang around on life support?" "I wouldn't want to die alone." "You don't know that he did." "His obit said that he 'passed away peacefully in the care of hospital staff.' I bet his family just phoned in the order to stop wasting the insurance coverage and called the funeral home while he was still plugged in." "Did it make you feel lucky?" she asks. "That you have such a caring family, I mean." "Yeah. Unbelievably so." "Did you go to his funeral?" "Yeah. They cremated him. It was fucking weird." "My grandma was, too. I read up on it after ­ it's a sick process. They put the bodies in these cardboard boxes and slide them into giant ovens so their sternum is centered, and then they burn the shit out of the body and roll what's left around in a mixer with ball bearings to reduce it to dust." Uh, gross. And I need to know that why? "Only you would do research instead of grieving." She chuckles. "Hey now, I had a bomb go off in the middle of my life, too ­ mine just had a timer on the detonator." "It's not the same. Having your own body turn against you and having a loved one die are different kinds of catastrophes." "My mom and I were there when she died ­ did I tell you? She had cancer all through her chest and throat, so they gave her a tracheotomy to breathe, and by the time she was going to die she was bleeding through the tube. Her face was all swollen and she couldn't open her eyes or close her mouth over her tongue. The ventilator was still pumping air into her as she drowned in her own blood." "Jesus, Swan." "There's nothing graceful about dying. A catastrophe is a catastrophe, no matter what your role is in it." I nod in agreement because I don't have any argument left, and we'd never see eye-to-eye on this issue anyway. I can't live her experience any more than she can live mine. "We talk about the weirdest shit." Bella giggles. "Imagine if we were set up on a blind date or something. It would be the most depressing first impression conversation." 167

"But would you call back?" "This is hypothetical." "You're wounding my ego, Swan." "Oh, not the fragile ego," she says with a roll of her eyes. "Seriously." I nudge her with my elbow and smile to show I'm teasing. "Would you?" Bella sighs thoughtfully. "But this is hypothetical, right?" "You're stalling." She elbows me. "It depends. Are we both at the same school in this scenario?" "Sure." "Is it a dinner date?" "If you like." "Would you try for a kiss at the end of the night?" I try and fail to read the desired answer on her face. "No?" Bella wrinkles her nose and shrugs. "I'd probably file you under 'friend.' That scenario is overtraditional and has the potential to get messy, if we're at the same school and have to see each other every day, even if it doesn't work out." "And what about the real-life scenario?" "We're speaking hypothetically." "Real life is infinitely messier. And what's wrong with a dinner date?" "It's so traditional. It's like something out of a bad sitcom." "Have you ever been on a dinner date?" Bella mumbles noncommittally. That's a no. "You should go on one before you judge. I'll take you out sometime." "No." "In the interest of research." "Not interested." "In dinner, or dinner with me?" "Both." "Why?" I'm a sucker for punishment. I have this compulsive need to hear her list in great detail each and every specific reason for rejecting me and filing me under 'friend.' "Besides the fact that we'd have to go to a vegan restaurant for you to be able to order anything?" "Shut up." "I like cooking." "You deserve a night off once in awhile." "Not to eat tofu with my asshole lab partner and pretend it's a date ­ a date which will, if the hypothetical proves an accurate model for reality, end with no action to make it worthwhile." "See, I would kiss you on this never-gonna-happen date, but that vitriol you keep in your mouth would probably burn my face off." "Chicken." "What?" Bella begins to buk at me. For a few seconds I just stare at this girl doing a bird impression ­ flapping wings and all ­ and a thought sneaks into my head like a ninja with Tourettes: Grab her tit. She'll never expect it. She's not wearing a bra under that shirt. "Cullen!" She slaps my hand away and glares up at me. "Uh, sorry." "Dude." 168

"You said you wanted action." "You are such a shit." "Really, I'm sorry. It was a stupid impulse." "Fine, Apology accepted," she says stiffly. I still suspect she'll kick me when I'm not looking. "I'll treat you better when I take you out for dinner." "We're not going out for dinner." "We will even if I have to kidnap you." I smile in the hope that she'll relax a little and joke with me. I'm not joking about dinner, though ­ I'm taking her out. "This isn't a date." "So I can't grab your tit again?" She takes a swing at me and I dodge her little fist, laughing. "Hey, don't hit the cancer patient." Bella lowers her fist. "You did not just play that card." "You weren't really gonna hit me." I wink at her and her eyes narrow. "For all you know." Bella mutters something that doesn't sound kind and resumes her stroll with a wary eye trained in my direction. "I won't grab you again, I promise." She snorts incredulously and looks the other way. Fuck. She got unbelievably pissed off when I touched her phone ­ she's going to hold this over me for even longer. "Hey." I put a hand on her shoulder to turn her toward me. "Honestly, I'm so -" Bella lunges at me unexpectedly. She doesn't weigh much, but she catches me off guard and I step backwards. One of her arms winds around my waist, turning me away as I struggle for balance. And the other hand? It fucking tickles me. Everywhere. I spazz and flail like a moron, trying to throw her off or grab hold of her hands. She's the first to fall on the slick grass of her neighbor's lawn, and she pulls me down with her. I land on top and she makes the quietest little "oof!" sound, like a kitten being squished under a truck. "Are you okay?" "Peachy." She lets go of me and I roll off her. "You all right?" "You fucking tickled me." "Is there a rule against tickling cancer patients?" She laughs. It's a sound I've never heard from her before ­ it's childish and pleasure-filled, with no sarcasm or wryness. I roll over and kneel over her legs, pinning her down on the damp lawn while I return the favor. She makes this strangled "gah!" sound and thrashes like a fish out of water. God, she's soft. This is the closest you're ever going to get to really touching her. I give her a break when she turns red in the face. She's got grass on her hair and she's panting from exertion and her loose shirt is twisted around her body. She looks at me with a smile that says, 'Fuck, you win.' "You're beautiful." Oh fuck. If she suddenly went temporarily deaf just now, there must be a God. Dude, think before you say shit! Bella pauses for the space of two breaths. "So are you." I awkwardly climb off her and stand up. I extend a hand to help her to her feet, but she ignores it. Her back is wet from the grass and stray blades stick to her hair and clothes. She brushes them off forcefully and turns back toward the house at a brisk pace. You fucked up, Cullen. I start after her. "Hey." I reach out to take her arm and she throws my hand off. "Don't." She holds a finger up in warning. I wouldn't put it past her to rap me between the eyes with 169

it. I hold my tongue, and after a few seconds she lowers her finger and marches away. I follow at a slower pace, and by the time I get back to the Swan house Bella is already in the kitchen, setting up pans and bowls. I'm beginning to think that cooking is her therapy. Bella unloads ingredients from the fridge to the counter and turns on the oven with a jerky snap of her wrist. She attacks the carrots with a peeler, hacking away at the skin and sending strips of it all over the sink. I quietly set up a cutting board and chopping knife for her. I've seen her do this enough times to know her method. When she moves over to the cutting board, slicing the carrots into coins in quick succession, I clean the strips of peel out of the sink. She won't look at me, but I know it makes her feel better to do this. Creativity calms her, and sometimes making a mess of something as simple as a few carrots can ease the tension. She's already starting to relax a little: her chopping slows to a series of more careful strokes instead of forceful hacking. Her scowl shifts to a look of calculation as she plans the next phase of her recipe. "See if there are any peas left in the fridge," she says. I retrieve the bag of peas and shell out what she needs. Bella is almost completely calm, now. She sets aside her chopping knife and begins to pick out the carrot coins that she massacred beyond recognition in her initial haste. "Are you okay?" "Why wouldn't I be?" It's more of an impulse than a conscious thought that prompts me to wrap my arms around her shoulders from behind. Bella tolerates the hug like she doesn't notice me. She keeps picking at the carrots, miles away from here. She smells like warm grass and old flannel. "Look in the freezer," she says. "What?" "Look in the freezer." I step away from her and open the freezer, looking for some frozen vegetable that she might intend to use. The cloud of condensation takes a second to dissipate, and holy shit yogurt-pops! "Did you just hop?" Oh fuck. "No." "I distinctly saw a hop ­ two of them, actually." "No you didn't." I grab a yogurt pop out of the fridge and unwrap it. Excited or not, I most certainly did not hop. Bella smirks. "I didn't, damn it." Bella chuckles and looks down at her cutting board. She scans the counter, with its bowls and pots and ingredients half-prepared, like she's never seen it before. "It's too early to make dinner," she says. It sounds like she's talking to herself. Nonetheless, I help her tidy up the kitchen, setting aside the carrots and peas for later, and we put on a movie instead. Bella isn't in a talking mood, but she rests her head on my shoulder while we watch. Her only remark is to tease me for the four yogurt pops I eat in the space of about fifteen minutes. "Do I need to explain how awesome these things are?" "No. I'm just glad you're eating." "Are you still going to care when my stomach gets better?" Bella sighs. Her face changes as she mulls that one over. She bites the inside of her lip and her nose 170

twitches a little. "Yeah," she says. "I think I will." It's approaching four-o-clock when my phone rings. I check the caller ID while Bella flips through her recipe binder, considering what she feels like making for dinner. It's Kate. "Hello?" "Bitch, pack your shit. We'll pick you up around six." "What?" "I cleared it with your Mom. You're coming to Seattle tonight." I look over at Bella, brow furrowed and flipping pages with a shrewd eye. I didn't actually say I was staying for dinner. Is it implied at this point? Should I tell her that I have plans with others? Should I invite her along? She invited you out to events when no one else would. But Kate did consider cracking her skull last week... "Um..." "Dude, you're not backing down from this. We're already on our way to your Podunk town." "We?" "Tanya and me." Aw fucksticks. Do I want to spend three hours in a car with Tanya? I could definitely do it with just Kate...but I want to see the others tonight, too. "Alright, I'll come." "Try not to sound so enthusiastic." "Shut up." "Slut." "Cocktease." I hang up and Bella gives me a sideways look for the way that call ended. "That was, uh..." "Let me guess ­ Emmett." That makes me snort. "No, um, I've got company coming to the house tonight." "Cool." She sounds like she doesn't really care. "I have to take off soon to meet them." "Alright." "And I probably won't get a chance to call you tonight." "Okay." "I don't know if I'll be able to see you tomorrow, either." "That's fine." Is it so fucking hard to pretend that she's going to miss me? "Sleep well, okay Swan?" She accepts a one-armed hug and agrees that she will. Bella offers no similar wish in return, though. As I leave the house I call back down the hall to her, "I'll make that dinner reservation." Bella answers with a skeptical "Ha!" I get the sense that she hasn't been treated well before; at least not romantically, anyway. That can be remedied. By you? Shut up.

171

When I get home I find Alice in my bedroom, arranging clothes across my bed and folding them into an overnight bag. "What are you doing?" "Oh, you'd just pack anything," she says. "It's nice when things match sometimes, you know. I'm putting together an outfit for -" She looks up and sees how dangerously close she is to having her neck wrung. "Er...do you want to bring your blue shirt or the grey one?" I point to the door and she drops my clothes with a huff. "You're welcome," she says moodily. "Thank you. But get the hell out." I shut the door and she blows a raspberry at me from behind it. I fold and place the change of clothes she gave me in my overnight bag, along with an extra shirt and a pair of pajamas. Then the real packing starts. I fill a smaller bag with medication bottles, clean syringes, swabs, tape, gauze, and hypoallergenic toiletries. The gear it takes to keep me alive weighs about as much as my normal luggage. I throw the bag of toiletries in with my clothes and zip it up. When I go downstairs I find Emmett in the kitchen with a packed bag of his own. He's cramming snacks for the road into the last remaining spaces. "Are you going somewhere?" "Kate said she'd give me a ride to Seattle." Of course, he wants to see Rosalie. I have no idea why he would want to do anything other than punch her in the face, ever, but everyone has their quirks. It's about five-o-clock by the time Kate and Tanya get here. They're driving Tanya's mom's minivan, which is a lot comfier and smells better than Kate's Gremlin. There's no "I bet someone has fucked on this seat" feel to this Winstar. Not that I don't appreciate the suspicious stains all over Kate's car, or anything. Emmett and I throw our bags in the trunk and pile into the backseat. Kate drove here, so Tanya is driving back while Kate plays DJ with the sound system. "So we're dropping you off at Rosalie's house?" Tanya confirms with Emmett as we merge onto the highway out of Forks. "Much appreciated." Kate makes a disgusted noise in her throat as she flips through a CD wallet. "I don't understand that bitch," she says. Kate would think nothing of referring to someone as a bitch in casual conversation with the person's old friend. "What are you talking about?" Emmett demands. He knows to take Kate with a grain of salt (lime and tequila optional), but he's loyal enough not to let a remark about Rosalie slide past. "All the attention she gets. I guess she's hot and all, but girls that prissy never know what to do with a guy." Kate turns around in the front seat and flicks her tongue past her lips suggestively, showing off her new stud. The piercing sits forward on her tongue ­ she didn't get that with Garrett in mind. Emmett laughs at Kate. "Is somebody bitter? You know she'd turn you down if you ever asked." "I wouldn't ask. I'd rape that bitch and teach her some manners." "Kate," I interject. She's generally oblivious to her tendency to leap over the line of civility. On the rare occasions where she does cross it consciously, she makes a point of puking on it as she walks past. Kate turns around in the front seat and chooses a CD. She slides Rammstein into the CD player and Tanya makes a little sound of displeasure. She's more of an R&B girl ­ any kind of metal doesn't do it for her. "Oh come on, what did the Germans ever do to you?" Kate smiles so sweetly in the face of Tanya's glare. Carmen, Eli and Irina are already at Kate's house when we get there. When we come in the front 172

door Kate's brother bellows from across the house, "Where the fuck did you put the poptarts?" Kate screams back: "Up your ass, you stunned cunt!" which is pretty much the normal way these two hold a civilized conversation. Eli takes the box of poptarts off the coffee table and hides it under one of the throw pillows in the couch. Irina gets up to give me a hug. She's dressed to go out: short skirt, low cut top, too much makeup, and fuckme heels. "Geez, you're thin," she says as she lets go the hug. "It's the chemo diet." She laughs and says she has to tell her fat bitch boss about that one. Irina isn't exactly the sensitive type. She oversubscribes to the idea that whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Kate disappears into her bedroom with Tanya, and I take a seat on the chair across from the others. They're all dressed for a night out. I'm not. "Plans for tonight?" Eli looks at me like I'm insane. "Dude, it's Saturday. Has small town life made you forget your city friends?" Of course. The Saturday night ritual. It's been forever since I've felt up to going out on a weekend, never mind the way we six used to. I'm not exactly prepared for it, but I want to do it anyway. I miss the sense of normalcy it gives to hanging out with these people. Kate's brother comes in, eating out of the box of Captain Crunch, and flops down on the couch next to Irina. He doesn't say a word to anyone, but turns on the TV and changes the channel to Spike TV. Then he notices me. "Who the hell are you?" "It's me, Edward." Both his eyebrows go up. "Oh. Shit. Didn't recognize you, dude." Kate (sort of) spares me from the awkward moment by returning to the living room in an obscenely revealing blue dress. "Is this merely slutty or full-on whorish?" she asks. Her brother doesn't even look up from the TV. If Alice tried that shit, Em and I wouldn't let her out the door. "You know what would go well with that?" Eli says. "A pearl necklace." Kate takes her shoe off and whips it at him. "Easy, you'll scare away your customers." Everyone but Kate laughs ­ including her brother. She gives Eli the finger and retrieves her shoe from the living room floor. "Fuck you all, I'm wearing it." As she slips her spike heel back on she turns to me and asks if that's what I'm wearing tonight. I have on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved cotton tee. It's a 'sit at home and do nothing' outfit, not a 'go out and get shitfaced' ensemble. "Uh, yeah." "I'm lending him one of your shirts," Kate says to her brother, who grunts at her through a mouthful of Captain Crunch. The shirt Kate finds in his room is too big (of course), but it'll work for one night. "Where are we going, anyway?" The usual haunts are dive concert halls. Live music is essential to a good night out for us. "Connelly's. Biocide is playing." "Have you fucked their drummer too?" "Not yet." She winks. We're all underage, and we've all learned the drawbacks of relying on a fake ID. You don't need to be twenty-one to get into Connelly's, but they stamp underagers at the door and it's never as fun if the night is dry. We always pre-drink at Kate's house, because it would piss her dad off if he ever found out. Eli sets up six shot glasses along the coffee table and uncaps a bottle of tequila. 173

"Just five," I tell him as he's about to pour. "Are you the driver tonight? You can have one, man." "I can't. It fucks with the meds, y'know?" "Not even a little bit?" "Nope." Eli shakes his head. "You don't even sound disappointed. Small town life ­ makes people boring and complacent." Tanya punches him in the shoulder. "Shut the hell up, Eli. He has cancer." "No I don't." There's an awkward pause before Kate grabs the bottle from Eli and starts pouring out shots. "None of this cancer bullshit," she says. "We're all gonna live forever. Nostrovia!" They all toss their shots back. Tanya is trying to look anywhere but at me, and I'm doing the same with Kate. I thought she was just being Kate last time I saw her, but this cinches it ­ she can't let go of the old me; the one that Tanya couldn't find. She wants to continue to live the uncomplicated existence of a normal teenager, and for me to be a part of that again. But I can't. Life doesn't work backwards like that. They pre-drink awhile longer. As the only sober one, I end up being the driver as we all pile into the minivan. We'll have to park at least three blocks from Connelly's, because this setup screams "high schoolers." The usual Saturday crowd is out and in fine form. Kate knows the bouncer from her last gig here, and manages to get us inside without too much of a wait. It's nice to know people in low places, because I'm not exactly keen on standing out in the rain for long. I need to catch a cold like a need a kick in the teeth. Inside, Connelly's is one of those places that has clearly seen better days. That's what we like about it. The floorboards are scratched and rotting, the graffiti on the walls and fixtures is full of outdated cultural references, the paint is peeling, the furniture is broken, and the lights are supposed to flicker like that. The only part of the place that doesn't predate the birth of most patrons is the state-of-the-art sound system - what makes Connelly's such a hidden gem. Carmen heads to the bar while the rest of us hunt for a booth near the back. She comes back with a tray of drinks ­ two lemon drops for Kate, a vodka tonic for Tanya, the cheapest domestic beer on tap for Eli, a bloody mary for Irina, and a double Jack and coke for herself. "I just got you a ginger ale," she says, passing the last glass to me. Ginger ale is probably the gentlest option on the menu here, but I still drink it cautiously. I haven't had a carbonated drink in a long time. I forgot the way the bubbles sting the back of the throat, right before the sweet taste takes over. Refined sugars taste bitter to me now. My tastebuds are still on vacation in Cancerville. Kate and I always come to these types of places for the same reason: to get caught up in the sound until nothing else could possibly exist. We all have our pleasures ­ Irina comes to hook up, Eli likes to get shitfaced, and Tanya is a flirt. Carmen always manages to meet the most interesting people on random nights out. It's like she attracts oddballs ­ or maybe that's how the six of us became friends, in her orbit. "Mosh pit. Now," Kate says when she's done her drinks. She grabs my hand and tows me away from the booth whether I like it or not. We pass by Tanya, talking sweetly to a guy wearing sunglasses indoors, and Kate says, "You have a boyfriend, you whore." She scurries away before Tanya can give her shit for ruining her conquest. As I follow Kate to the front of the crowd, to the centre of the forming mosh pit, I can't help thinking this is a bad idea. I don't have the energy for stuff like this. I'm going to be black and blue by 174

midnight. But... I miss this. I miss going out and not giving a shit and getting buzzed on cheap drinks and raw music. I miss Kate being a cocktease (she doesn't screw friends) and sneaking home at three-oclock in the morning and trying to convince Mom that I'm not drunk. It's no secret that Kate wants to pick up tonight. I have her with me until the second set ends, and then she'll go corner the drummer and fuck around in the bathroom. Typical Saturday night, really. I savor the time we have just us, because we're both convinced that only musicians really get the feeling of being completely swept up in the crowd and the music. It moves us and pretty soon I don't care about the sweet pounding in my ears or the elbows in my sides or the smell of spilt beer and sweat. I'm so busy ignoring all the shit that has no place here tonight, that I don't immediately understand the look of fear that Kate gives me when the second set finishes. "Dude." She grabs my arm with concern. I look down and realize I'm shaking. She pulls me to the side of the hall, away from the press of bodies, and without the heat of the other patrons around me, I suddenly feel cold. "You look ready to pass out." She puts a hand to my clammy forehead and offers to get me a bottle of water or something. "No, no. I just need air." Kate purses her lips and nods. She doesn't offer to come with me, like Tanya would, because she doesn't like to cozy up to the idea that I'm really ill. I make my way out the side door, into the alley. Mercifully, it's not raining at the moment. I lean against the opposite wall and try to get a decent breath. Everything hurts and my ears are ringing. My entire body feels like lead. Without the distractions of the club, all I can feel is the pain and the mingled scents of spilt booze, sweat and nearby trashcans. The shirt Kate loaned me is soaked through with sweat, and I'm starting to shiver. There's a crowd out front, so I head in the opposite direction. It doesn't even occur to me where I'm going until I'm halfway there, but I end up back at the minivan. There are worse places to crash. I get in and angle the driver's seat back as far as it will go, trying to relax my sore body. I am going to have so many bruises tomorrow it's not even funny. Alice is going to scream me stupid. I can't decide if it was worth it or not. Maybe if I had been well enough to actually do all the things I used to love, I would enjoy a night out more. This just feels like I'm imitating the life of someone I don't even know anymore. The clock on the dashboard says it's one-o-clock. It'll be at least another hour before the others decide to pack it in. I don't know if I'm up for any more. I might just stay in the car and sleep a little, waiting for them. That is such a lonely thought. I call Bella, only half expecting her to answer her phone at this hour. It takes four rings, and when she does pick up she whines sleepily, "Whaaaat?" "The Stones broke up." "You're so full of shit," she slurs. Even half asleep, she knows how these conversations usually go. The familiarity of her response makes me smile. "What are you doing?" "Sleeping, dickhead. Don't tell me this is a social call." "I just wanted to see how your night went." "I cooked. I cleaned up. I did homework. I went to bed. 'Kay?" "Aren't you going to ask about my night?" "You don't sound happy, so you're probably calling to bitch about your company." I hear the rustle of blankets as she resituates herself in bed. I chuckle dryly at her assumption. "It was a good night out." 175

"You went out?" "I'm in Seattle." "How is it?" I pause to think about that. The streetlamp throws an orange glow across the raindrops on the windshield. This city used to seem so alive. Now it just seems...cold. Like someone I used to know, long ago, and kept fondly in memory, but now seems ugly and standoffish. Or maybe that's me. "I hate it." Bella chuckles softly. "I told you ­ you can't go home again." "I should have brought you with me." "Don't be such a stick in the mud. Let your Seattle friends show you a good time." "Yeah, I know. But you make things...nicer." She would have come with me to get some air, at least. Kate's probably got her tongue down that drummer's throat by now. "Is Tanya being a bitch to you again?" "She's okay." Tanya can't help the way she is around me. I don't like it, but I forgive her for it. "Stick it out. You'll be back tomorrow." "I know." I let out a sigh and try not to think about how many hours exist between now and then. "Thanks for talking to me." "I'll be waiting for you when you get back." "Thanks." That just turned my whole night around. "Goodnight." "Sleep well." I wait for her to hang up first, but then she says, "Oh, Edward?" "Yeah?" "If you ever call me at one a.m. again for anything less than the Stones breaking up, you're getting sacked. Hard." I laugh and she hangs up quietly. I feel better, but I don't want to go back to Connelly's. I want to sit here and be alone with thoughts that lighten a body that feels too heavy to move. I turn on the radio to a classic rock station and doze against the headrest. I don't even get through the first chorus of "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" before a knock on the window interrupts me. Eli opens the car door and looks in on me with concern. He sways a little bit and can't focus his eyes. "You alright man?" His words run together and his breath reeks of whisky. "Yeah. Just taking a break. I'll meet you back in there." Eli shuts the car door, but he doesn't go back to Connelly's. He walks around the passenger side and gets in next to me. "I'll wait with you." "You don't have to." I'm not exactly eager for his company when he's been drinking. This isn't even Eli the Shitfaced Asshole yet. This is merely Eli the Drunken Fuck. The difference is about two drinks and one minor injury. Eli looks over at me with a sad smile. "You've been alone too long, man," he says. "I still talk to your sister, you know. She said...well, she said a lot of things." He turns to look out the windshield with a burdened expression. "When were you talking to Alice?" Eli is a great guy, but he's not the sort of person I want lurking around my little sister. His reputation of bullshit and whimsy precedes him. He shrugs. "Online. I would have come out to see you more ­ during, I mean ­ but this whole not having a car thing limits my range." He smiles and scoffs and says, "You know my grandma is charging me rent now?" "Does that mean you have to get a real job?" Eli works as a roadie for Kate and her band when they need him, and he gets paid cash from the local Taco Bell to help them unload their supply truck on 176

Wednesdays. Not much in the way of income in that line of work. "Nah. Last month she thought it was 1969, so she adjusted the rent for inflation." He chuckles, but I can't. Grandma May's progressing dementia has always freaked me out. The only reason Eli hasn't gotten her help is because he would be homeless if she ever went into a nursing home. He keeps her from burning the house down or doing herself harm, and in return he gets to live on her pension with her. "And some months I can convince her that I already paid her. She usually forgets what she was looking for before she can figure out that she doesn't have the extra money." "You're going to hell for that." "We're all going to hell." He takes a cigarette out of his pocket and sets it between his lips. I grab it from him and throw it out of the car before he can locate his lighter. "Fucker," he whines. "Cancer patient," I tell him slowly and loudly. "Are you that fucking dense?" "It's not like it was fucking lung cancer," he bitches. He sets his lighter on the dash and pats his pockets for another smoke. I take his lighter and whip it over my shoulder into the back seat. "Good luck finding it." "That wasn't even my lighter!" "Your problem, not mine." Eli turns around in his seat and seethes like a bratty child. We don't say anything else for a while. Eli takes out a stick of gum and chews loudly, and I just let my thoughts drift to the sound on the radio. "A few people recognized you in there, you know." "What?" "Some people saw you with Kate and asked if it was you. Word got around that you were sick, but it's different to actually see it." "Who asked?" Eli shrugs. He isn't going to give me an honest answer. "Kids from around school. Nobody important." That could mean anybody. It doesn't even matter because I don't go to school here anymore, but it bothers me that on Monday morning people are going to be murmuring in the hallways about what a shell Edward Cullen has become. It's enough to make me glad that I moved away before getting sick. Being invisible at Forks High is better than falling from my place on the social ladder in Seattle. I lean back and close my eyes. Eli offers to drive me back to Kate's house, and then come back for the others. "You've been drinking." Eli sighs and gets out of the car, stumbling a little. I assume he's going back inside, but then there's a click and a draft and the back hatch of the van opens to the night. "Come here, man." I go around to the back of the van and find Eli folding the last row of seats down. There is a sleeping bag rolled up in the back with a pillow tucked underneath. "We planned for such a contingency." He bursts out laughing like he just told a joke. "Word of the week!" he cackles. Do you ever feel like you're trapped in the company of somebody who is likely to get you arrested? Fuck off, you missed him. I stay out of Eli's way while he sets up a cot in the van. He pulls a water bottle from the center console between the front seats and says there's Jell-O in there too if I need it. I don't know what to say to him. "Whose idea was this?" 177

"Tanya's. You know how she worries." Eli mimics Tanya's high-pitched worry voice and gestures to the cot. "Get in, I'll close the tailgate." The bump of a pothole wakes me up. I open my eyes to find Kate in the adjacent seat, watching me. Irina is nowhere to be found. Eli is riding shotgun, and Tanya is driving. Carmen I find behind me, sandwiched between my back and the side of the car. Her sturdy arm is wrapped around my front, compensating for the instability of the seatbelt that has been jerry-rigged across our hips. "You're bruising," Kate says. She pushes back my sleeve a few inches to reveal a purpling blotch on my arm. "It happens." "Why didn't you say something, you stupid fuck?" "I was having a good time." "Don't ruin it, Kate," Eli says quietly. She purses her lips and lets the issue drop. I don't fit in here anymore. They don't know how to deal with my problems ­ they shouldn't have to. Carmen gives me a little squeeze. I ask her whom she met tonight, and she quietly tells me about the couple passing through on a road trip from Dallas to Victoria for a wedding. She'll probably keep in touch with them, too; that's just Carmen. But she didn't keep in touch with you.

Sunday

I wake up in Kate's bed. Everything hurts. I hate waking up like this. As I sit up a casual study of my arms and shoulders reveals a series of bruises that will take a week or more to fade. "Hey bitch," Kate says from the doorway. She's wearing nothing but an oversized t-shirt and holding a steaming mug of coffee. She looks surprisingly well rested after a night sleeping on the couch. Ah, to be young and healthy. "Hey slut," I reply tiredly, and swing my legs out of bed. Kate studies my bruises and says she's going to have a hard time busting me out of Forks again. "Your mom isn't gonna let you play rough with us again any time soon." That might be a wise decision on Mom's part. I bet she was banking on me having better judgment than to go out on a Saturday night and mosh like any other seventeen-year-old boy. "Will you drive me home after breakfast?" It seems rude to leave so early, but I want to get home. I need to rest up for school on Monday, and Bella said she would be waiting for me. "Sure," Kate says. "We can even eat on the road, if you like." I expect her to leave, to let me get dressed and to hunt down something more substantial than coffee for herself, but she steps into the room and closes the door instead. "What are you doing?" Kate places a hand on my forehead and runs it back, over my scalp and down the back of my neck. She could at least ask before making a freak of me, like Tanya did. "How's that girl of yours?" she asks. "She's not mine." "You said you hadn't dated since moving away." "No." "Must be lonely." Kate runs a hand along my jaw, feeling the place where the bone juts out for lack of fat. I'm considering all the snarky ways to answer her dumb question when she leans down and 178

kisses me. Kate never does this with friends. She sets her coffee cup aside without breaking the kiss and pushes me back onto the bed. The weight of her stings the bruises a little as she crouches over me, touching my neck and shoulders, but it's difficult to care. It's been awhile since I did this with anyone ­ since anyone wanted to do this with me. And even though we both have morning breath and definitely need to shower, I enjoy her. It's even a little flattering that she's willing to break her I-don't-screwfriends rule for me. A piece of blue hair falls in our way and I brush it back. There was a time when I often entertained fantasies of doing this with her. I liked the idea of Kate before I really knew her. Even though she doesn't feel quite right in my hands, I missed this and she's warm and horny beggars can't be choosy. Kate shifts so that more of her weight rests against me and I wince before I can stop myself. She lifts herself up on her arms and breaks away from me. "Too much?" she asks. I grab her by the back of her head and pull her back down. She is not going to treat me like I'm made of glass, damn it. But she's wary now, and holds herself slightly above me on her elbows and bent knees. Our fronts touch, but I bear none of her weight. She offers to let me be on top, and I don't know how to explain that I'm too sore and too weak to hold myself above her for very long. "I like you on top," I say, and that's good enough for Kate. I reach under her nightshirt, running my hands up her sides until I get to her chest. Her shirt rides up along my forearms, showing off her fair skin. Her tits seem too large all of a sudden ­ too much for one handful, and I feel like an incompetent little boy trying to properly grope her. I prefer smaller chests, like B-- "Been awhile for you, hasn't it?" she says against my lips. She's got her wicked smirk on, mocking me. "Oh shut up." Kate's hand suddenly leaves the mattress and slips between my thighs searchingly. Fuck. I expected a little more in the way of foreplay. Her hand runs up my thigh, trying to tease me, until her fingers cross paths with my dick. And she's disappointed. The first time a girl has touched me there in months, and I don't meet her expectations. Kate cups my balls and limp dick in her hand and says, "If you're not into it, we can stop. I won't be offended." I pull her back for another kiss. "Believe me, I want to." Her hand starts stroking me through my pajama pants while her other hand tries to negotiate the worn tie at my waist. I kiss her neck and bite her ears and pull her hair a little ­ all things she used to bitch about Garrett never doing ­ but she won't be distracted from my failure to respond to her hand. No matter how she touches me, it stubbornly remains soft. "Are you sure-?" "Yes." Just be patient with me, damn it. "Is this not doing it for you?" "You're doing fine." I go to kiss her again and she rolls her eyes before complying. "What are you, gay?" she mutters against my lips. I put my hands on her shoulders and shove her back. She falls back on her ass, stunned, and I sit up and pull away from her. "No, I'm not gay," I growl at her. "I'm sick." I have never seen Kate look so shocked. She has always been the badass with a smart remark handy and unwavering composure, but now she just sits there and gapes at me like a lost little girl. 179

Kate rights her twisted nightshirt and gets off the bed. She apologizes quietly and shrugs. "You know saying the right thing isn't my forte." I let her off the hook. I don't want to make this more awkward than it already is. "Don't worry about it." Kate leaves to eat, and I get into the shower. I have to do it with the light on because I don't know Kate's bathroom well enough to navigate in the dark. I hate looking at myself. After a few minutes I give up on really showering and just stand under the spray, studying my body. Thank God Kate didn't get far enough to see the scars or the worst of the bruises or my conspicuous lack of body hair or the bones sticking out or the central line in my chest. The whole thing could have gone so much worse. The fact that I couldn't satisfy her is going to haunt me. She was willing to overlook the skeletal weight and the bald head, but my limp dick offended her. I'm useless. I'm not fun to be around anymore, even as her friend, and I couldn't even rise to the occasion for a goddamned pity fuck. I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't get in touch with me for a long, long time. I feel like shit by the time I'm showered and dressed. Kate, on the other hand, has decided to act like nothing happened ­ sort of the way she acts about my disease in general. She offers me a four-pack of Jell-O cups to eat on the road, and drives me home with a smile on her face. Even before we pick up Emmett and have to act cool for the benefit of his ignorance, she talks about mundane shit like nothing happened this morning. "You weren't too hard on my little brother, were you?" Emmett asks teasingly when we stop to pick him up from Rosalie's house. "Nah, I was good to him," she says. I'm sorry I couldn't return the favor. When we pull into the driveway I see Alice on the porch swing with Bella, chatting happily. They look up and wave at us. Emmett gets out of the car, and no sooner has he shut the door behind him than Kate teases me: "You're fucked." Shit, was I grinning? "Shut up." She laughs and I get out of the car. I toss a, "Thanks, slut," over my shoulder as I grab my bag, and she replies, "Fuck off, whore." As I ascend the porch steps I can hear Alice whispering Kate's general story to Bella ­ the electric violin; the hook ups; that time in Milwaukie... "Hey." I drop my bag next to the porch swing and sit down next to Alice. She promptly scoots over onto my lap. "Did you miss me?" "Pfft. No." She wraps my arms around her waist and fiddles with the strap on my watch. She totally missed me. I turn to Bella "What about you?" "I know how to keep myself occupied." Her tone is strange. Is she being coy? I can't tell if she missed me or not. You're a fool to hope, Cullen. Of course she'd never just tell you she did and put you out of your misery. "I worry about you," Alice says casually, and reaches back to pat my cheek. "Did you sleep okay?" "Like the dead." She cranes her neck to look at me over her shoulder. "Do you want a milkshake?" Fuck yes. 180

"Yes please." Alice gets up and skips away into the house, singing as she goes: "Do your ears hang low, do they -" Bella stifles a giggle. "Go ahead and laugh. She thrives on any sort of attention." "Just like you." "Nuh-uh." Bella stands up and grabs the handle of my bag. "Come on." She nods to the front door. "You can brag to me about your night in Seattle." I go to the laundry room to deposit the weekend's clothes in the washing machine, and Bella goes to the kitchen. I can hear her whispering with Alice from here. "What are you talking about?" I call down the hall. "Milkshakes!" Alice yells back. That is so not fucking fair. I've been trying to weasel that recipe from Alice for months. What the hell kind of justice is this that Bella can just stroll in and sweet-talk the secret out of her? I enter the kitchen to find Alice putting the lid on the blender and Bella putting the milk away. They're like cockroaches in the light, hiding their method from me. Alice fires up the blender and I fetch glasses down from the cupboard. Bella and I take a seat at the island while Alice winds the blend speed back and forth, getting the froth just right on the milkshakes. She knows how to get them perfectly smooth every time. I have to work to speak over the sound of the blender, but I tell Bella about Connelly's and the live music. Some of my favorite CDs were purchased out of the back of the bands' vans directly after shows there, because Connelly's supports a lot of unsigned artists. They're cheaper to hire for live entertainment. The idea of new music piques Bella's interest. "Come up, I'll show you." I nod to the stairs and we slide off our stools. "Wait, milkshakes," Alice calls after us. She pours three tall glasses of raspberry goodness and passes two across the island. "I'll clean up and meet you upstairs." Did I say I wanted to host a little powwow in my room? I thought I invited Bella upstairs. I want her to myself. Alice notes the look on my face and realizes she isn't exactly welcome. "Fine," she snaps, and snatches the glass out of my hand. She upends the milkshake over the sink. "You can't just use me whenever you feel like it and then expect me to bugger off." "You offered to make milkshakes." I point to the melting mess in the sink. I was looking forward to that, damn it. "No, I get it." She dumps her milkshake out too. Either her appetite is gone or she doesn't want me to steal it to replace the one she threw out. "You're too good to hang out with me again. I'm your last freaking resort and you can do better now, so to hell with me, right?" She sticks her tongue out at me and stomps away toward the stairs. "Al." I reach out to grab her arm and she pushes my hand away. "Go away," she snarls. "If you want another milkshake you can forget it." She runs up the stairs and slams her bedroom door. That fails to satisfy, so she slams it again for good measure. "Um." I look over at Bella, who doesn't seem to know what to think of Alice's tantrum. "I'll be right back." She nods. "I'll be down here." At first glance, Alice's bedroom is empty. But I know my dork of a little sister. I go over to her 181

"cupboard under the stairs" (her closet) and open her hidey-hole. "Your glasses are going to fog up." They always do when she wears them and cries at the same time. But she does it anyway, because the glasses comfort her. She squeezes Hedwig closer to her chest and tells me to go away. "Scoot over." I pull the string on the bare bulb that lights her closet and step in beside her. It's a tight squeeze, sitting next to her on the floor. We fit much better into cubbies like this when we were kids. "I'm sorry." "You're like a crappy fair-weather friend in reverse," she whines. She has a point. I came to rely on her company when I was sick. And now that I'm getting better... well, I suppose things will go back to the way they were before I was ill, when our lives were more separate. I didn't have much of a use for her then; I was growing up and she was still a little girl. Alice climbs onto my lap. "That was, like, the one good thing about you having cancer ­ you weren't too cool to hang out with me anymore." "Al, you have your own friends." I tuck her spiky little head under my chin and she wraps her arms around my neck. The frame of her glasses pokes my chest. "I know," she says sadly. "But you're better." "Can I get that in writing?" I try to tease. Alice pinches my shoulder. Ow. "I mean it, dummy." "And I appreciate it." Alice sniffs back snot and I scan the closet floor for a stray sock or something to blow her nose on. "I know this will probably go to your head, but you are sort of cool ­ for a big brother, anyway." "Careful, the closet door is narrow." She laughs weakly. "I just liked being the only one who knew that, y'know?" She lifts her head and looks up at me through those big round foggy glasses. No wonder she's the favorite kid ­ she's adorable without even trying. "Well, that," she says, laying her head back down, "and I also liked getting to hear all your little secrets." I groan and try to shift her off my lap. Alice whimpers like a puppy and locks her arms around my neck. "Get off. The confidence has gone to your head." "Nuh-uh." "Uh-huh." "Nuh-uh." "Alice." "Edward," she mimics my tone. "As much as you enjoy my loneliness, there is a very real person waiting downstairs." "Ugh. Fine." Alice lets go and crawls off my lap. She opens the closet door and shuffles out into the room on all fours. "Go have your stupid friends." "Nuh-uh." I grab her around the waist and haul her to her feet ­ she squeals loudly. "You're along for the ride." "I don't need a pity invite." "It's more of a hostage situation." I turn her around and throw her over my shoulder like I used to, even though she feels way too heavy now and my shoulders are sore from last night. She struggles a little for the sake of her image, but lets me carry her back downstairs. I set her down in the kitchen and Alice's eyes go wide behind her round glasses. There's a reason I keep Bella around. In the five minutes we were gone she went through the 182

cupboards and found bowls, baking sheets, and the ingredients for what I'm guessing will be cookies. "Oatmeal raisin or pecan chocolate?" she asks. Alice pushes her glasses farther up her nose and swallows. "Uh, pecan chocolate, please." It wasn't what I had in mind, but an afternoon baking with my sister and Bella is still a pretty good way to end the weekend. It makes Alice happy, at least, and I'm totally her favorite brother right now. I'll have to find a way to rub that in Emmett's face tonight...

Monday

I fall asleep in biology. I don't even realize that I've dozed off with my head in my hand until my chin slips over the edge of my palm and I headbutt Bella in the shoulder. "Dude," she scolds me, and pushes me back to my half of the table. "Sorry." Bella looks at me shrewdly and very deliberately pokes my shoulder where she pushed me. I wince and slap her hand away. "Why are you so tender?" "I bruise like a peach, okay? Quit poking me." Bella pulls my cuff back a few inches, enough to expose the bruises that I've managed to keep hidden from Mom and Alice. She glares at me and asks if I walked into a pole. "Several, actually," I answer stiffly. It's none of her business, anyway. Bella shakes her head and turns back to her lab assignment. I roll my sleeve back down, tugging it so far that it almost covers my hand completely. Bella hands me a mint. "It was just a small mosh pit." She snorts like my explanation is funny. "Totally not what I was thinking." "What were you thinking?" "Rough sex," she replies easily. "Either that or a fight with a five-year-old." It takes a few seconds for me to realize that she insulted me with that last part, because I'm hung up on the idea of Bella thinking of me having sex. I thought she thought I was a complete write-off ­ some sort of closet case or asexual. Well, she pictured you naked and didn't gag. Good sign? She was probably joking, you idiot. It doesn't matter if she was ­ you can't deliver, remember? I knew Kate was going to come back to haunt me. I feel my face go hot with the residual fucking shame of Sunday morning. Why the fuck did I say yes to her when I knew better? "You've got a dirty mind, Swan." "It makes life interesting," she answers simply, like we're talking about the merits of powdered versus liquid dish soap. "You find my sex life interesting?" "Do you have one?" I hate it when she wins.

183

14. April 16 to 21

Tuesday

I'm going to miss moments like this when I graduate high school. Jessica is putting her plan to make Mike jealous into action by flirting with Eric right in front of him at lunch. Yorkie is so happy with the attention that he looks like he doesn't know whether to shit or go blind, but Mike takes it in stride. He turns to me and starts a game of slappies. I suck at this game, uncoordinated as I am, but it's probably karma's way of getting me back for encouraging Jess in the first place. Mike goes easy on me, flirting just a little to put it back in Jessica's face. All of this is a wasted effort. They'll be back to making out behind the bleachers again by the final bell. It's around the time that Eric begins to tell Jess about his D&D character that Jess seems to realize this was a bad idea. Mike whacks the back of my hands again, but he holds on this time, laughing at my ineptitude. I never realized what small hands he has. He has fingers like a hobbit. Mike rubs his thumbs along the backs of my hands. Touchy. Feely. Fucking gross. He asks me if I ever went camping when I lived in Arizona. Renee has her whims, but she has never felt the need to sleep outside with nothing more for protection than a flimsy piece of nylon. I tell Mike no and he says we'll have to organize a group camping trip this summer, while the weather is nice. "I'm not really the camping type." "How do you know? You've never done it. You might like it as much as you like cliff diving." His eyes narrow on the last part. I guess I'm still not forgiven for that one. "I'm not big on camping either, Bella," Jessica volunteers. Mike nudges my shoulder, eager to reclaim my attention and the upper hand in this tug-of-war he and Jess are playing. "Maybe a little exposure to it would warm you up to the idea. My parents are hiring for the summer soon." I couldn't think of a job less suited to my skill set than clerking in Newton's Outfitters, but there's slim pickings in the student job market in Forks, and I need to earn money somehow. I should take what I can get and be happy with it. "Okay." My willingness makes Mike smile. "I'll stop by the store and drop off an application." We're watching a movie today in biology. It's a stop-motion claymation about mitosis and meiosis. This feels like Sesame Street Goes to Med School. It also limits the amount of in-class conversation that Mr. Banner is willing to tolerate. A paper plane note flies past the screen every two minutes. Edward sends a plane twelve inches to the right, directly into my hair. Fucker. You know Newton's going to rape you in the stockroom. It is absolutely none of his business where I work. Edward has been petty and snippy about Newton before, sometimes with good reason, but this is a new low. I write back, You can't rape the willing, and slide the paper his way. Edward glares at the note for a good long time before crushing it in his fist. Part of me fears for Mike's tires...or brakes. As we get ready to leave the lab at the end of the hour, Edward slips a second note into my sweater pocket. I read it in the locker room before gym class, but almost wish I hadn't. The message makes a horrible hour even worse: I made us a dinner reservation. Saturday, 7 pm. I'll pick you up. That bastard even drew a smiley face underneath. What. The. Fuck. 184

And under that: P.S. Newton's a tool. Mature as ever, I see.

Wednesday

Jake calls me after school and asks me to bring a few of the car parts in Charlie's shed over tonight. I dig two mufflers and a head gasket out of the milk crates and head to La Push before supper. Jake's latest project has hit a stall lately from lack of luck at the dump and lack of funds, but that might turn around now. Newton's might hire me, and Jake might have a buyer for these parts. He calls hello to me when I pull in, but doesn't get up from his work, which is just as well because he's covered in grease. I unload the mufflers and gasket by the door and open Jake's toolbox in search of food. Jake's latest project is the reason Billy would hate me, if only he knew what his son was building. I've been covertly enabling him for months. The car parts in Charlie's garage, the ads on CraigsList and Auto Trader ­ all to make good on my promise to take Jake to Arizona and introduce him to the sun. The project in question is a Harley Sprint, left to rust and shot to shit by its previous owner. We'll be lucky if it's running again by this summer, never mind up to the task of a 1500-mile road trip. "How's she doing?" I take a seat on an upturned milk crate and crack open a warm Pepsi. "I think I've finally got the brake line fixed." "Super." So it'll stop, but can't run. "Did you bring the parts?" Jake already has a trip to the hardware store planned, with a list of what he needs and what we can afford with this small influx of cash. The used parts won't bring in much money, but it's something. "I applied for a job today. If I get it I'll give you a piece of my paycheck for parts." Jake looks at me like I'm insane. "You can't do that. It's your paycheck." "And I can spend it how I like." "It's not even your bike. You don't have to pay for parts." "You can pay me back, if you like, but since we both intend to get some use out of her," I gesture to the shell of a bike, "I don't see the problem." "Bella," he says sternly, like I'm a misbehaving child. "Jake," I return in the same tone. He just shakes his head and calls me a stubborn one.

Thursday

I consider telling Edward that Mrs. Newton called me back the same day I submitted an application and offered me a part-time job (probably with Mike's influence). But I know it would piss him off, so I don't say anything. He's in a good mood today and I don't want to spoil it. Of course, I didn't count on Mike cheerfully informing me over lunch that he'll be training me at my first shift on Monday. Edward doesn't say anything, but he looks pretty pissed off. "The register is pretty simple," Mike says. "It's just learning the product that takes time." He starts to tell me about a new line of sleeping bags they'll be selling this summer, but I'm only half-listening. My attention is divided between Mike and the thoughtful, troubled way Edward runs his fingers across the side of his jaw. I'd bet my truck he's working on something snarky to say. Mike notices my preoccupation and beats Edward to the punch. "Miss a spot shaving?" Edward and I both pause and Angela chokes on her orange juice. Edward glares at him across the 185

table. "Fu--" "Ow!" Newton flinches back and slips sideways off his chair, gripping his injured knee. "Oops." Everyone looks at me like they don't know what to say. I just shrug. "I slipped." And I'll probably never have a better opportunity to kick Newton. He bitches and moans like a fucking baby as he crawls back into his seat. Edward pushes his chair back and walks away. I consider leaving with him, but he probably wants to be alone. Edward doesn't show up to bio. That doesn't entirely surprise me. I don't see him for the rest of the day, and he doesn't call for music before bed. I send a short Goodnight text that goes unanswered. Mike's remark must have put quite a dent in Edward's ego. I'm hardly innocent of the same crime ­ I called him Uncle Fester when I barely knew him ­ but at least I was provoked. Mike had no reason to say anything to Edward, let alone be mean to him. I start to count backwards on my fingers, adding up the time I've known Edward against the thirtynine days he had officially been in remission when I asked. It took Grandma nearly four months to start regrowing actual hair after her last round of chemo. It was thin and fell out easily and had the texture of newborn hair. I would never ask Edward, of course, because he's so sensitive about his hair, but I do wonder how much longer until he ditches the hats altogether. I pick up my phone and text Edward again, even though he didn't reply to my last. You still awake? It takes Edward five minutes to answer: Maybe. Newton's a tool. I'm awake. I call him and he answers with a droll, "Did I miss anything in bio?" "Not really. I don't want to talk about school." "Okay...?" "Did you shave your head before chemo?" I can hear him lick his lips on the other end of the line. "I don't want to talk about that." "I still have the razor I shaved my grandma's head with. It's one of those old straight razors ­ Sweeney Todd style." "Oh." "I cut her hair off with the kitchen scissors and then shaved the rest. I was so worried I was going to cut her because I'd never used a razor like that before." "Did you?" "No. I went slow. It took me more than an hour to do the job." "Why are you telling me this?" "Because it was frightening but I loved it. I loved her for letting me do it, and she was so beautiful and confident...gorgeous even without her hair." "Bella..." "Newton is an idiot. Don't listen to him. Don't let him make you feel less-than." Edward doesn't say anything. The silence stretches on, so I make it easy and let him off the hook. "Goodnight, Edward." "G'night."

186

Friday

I open my locker at lunchtime and a note falls out at me. It's from Edward. Meet me at the picnic tables. I swing by the cafeteria to buy food, and then head out to the seldom-used picnic tables on the far edge of the parking lot. Edward is already there when I arrive, sitting on the tabletop with his feet resting on the bench. I toss him a carton of milk and climb up beside him. "You're not hiding out here, are you?" "No." Edward shakes his head and folds open the milk spout. "I just wanted you all to myself, is all." I give him a sideways look and he stares right back, completely unapologetic. "Are we still on for tomorrow?" Ugh, I had almost blocked out all knowledge of his dinner plans. "I told you I don't do dinner dates." "And that prohibits you from going out to grab a bite with a friend?" I mull that one over and he nudges my shoulder with his. "Come on, Swan. I think we both need a night out of Forks." "Out of Forks?" "The place I had in mind is in Port Angeles." "I still don't think--" Edward lays a finger over my lips, cutting me off. "Please don't make me kidnap you." "Oh God damn it..." Edward laughs. I guess my answer qualifies as a yes. He takes his iPod out of his jacket pocket and hands me an earphone. He chooses "Love of the Loveless" by the Eels. These uncomplicated moments with Edward are rare, just sitting on the table with music and food and no real need for conversation. We coast through a few songs before "Electro-Shock Blues" comes on. Edward and I share a sideways look, and he changes the track to "P.S. You Rock My World." I'm starting to like these wordless conversations.

Saturday

I make supper for Charlie at five-o-clock, but I don't eat anything. I don't want to spoil my appetite, and the reservation Edward made is at seven. I tell Charlie about my plans to go out with a friend. "Aren't you gonna eat first?" "We'll grab a bite while we're out." I leave Charlie to devour his fish tacos and go upstairs to get ready for an evening out. Unfortunately that means shedding my weekend getup of torn jeans and old plaid shirts. I strip out of my comfy clothes and open my closet. I'm lost. What the hell does one wear on a non-date? I have a feeling that jeans and a tee won't cut it, but the thought of having to get dressed up creeps me out. My only skirt is quickly ruled out. The chenille sweater I wear on special occasions like Christmas is too good. Plain tees and band shirts aren't good enough. My simple white blouse could use a little bleach. It's too cold here for the tank tops I made frequent use of in Phoenix. Eventually I compromise: dark jeans on the bottom, and a blue blouse on top; the perfect balance of 'I'm going out' and 'I don't care.' I don't usually wear makeup, and since this really isn't a date, I decide not to bother now. I leave my hair down and pass on any form of jewelry. I do one better than sneakers, though: black flats, both understated and good enough to go with the blouse. 187

Then I realize I've spent twenty whole minutes fretting over what to wear to see Edward, and I want to hit something. Charlie doesn't quite know how to read my appearance when I go downstairs. I don't look like I'm going out on a date, precisely, but I don't look like I'm just going to school, either. "Who are you going to be with, again?" he asks. It's useless to lie to him in such a small town. He knows everyone I go to school with ­ and their parents and grandparents. "Edward Cullen." My answer irritates Charlie. "You're going out with that kid?" "It's not a date. We're just hanging out together." "Alone?" "Just us two, yeah." "Are you sure that's a good idea?" He narrows his eyes at me. To anyone else, he might look angry. To me he just looks scared. "We're friends." "Bells, I know you've had a rough time these last couple years, and I don't have anything against you being nice to the Cullen kid, but you've gotta be careful." "I am." I consider telling Charlie how often Edward and I meet at each others' houses when he's away fishing, and that we don't just dso biology homework, but I don't want to give my dad an aneurism. He worries enough about me. The doorbell rings. I head to the front hall and quickly grab my sweater and purse before opening the door. Charlie follows me wearily, like he's preparing to send me off to my death. I open the door and Edward smiles at me nervously. "Hi. Let's go." I put a hand on his arm and practically shove him down the front steps. I want to get out of here before Charlie gets the idea to lecture us, or to threaten Edward with the treat-the-cop'sdaughter-right-or-else speech. Charlie comes out onto the porch and Edward says, "Nice seeing you," over his shoulder as we walk away. Charlie doesn't say anything. He just folds his arms and glowers at us across the driveway. Edward seems to find my behavior funny. He smirks at me and follows me around to the passenger side of the car. "You look really nice," he says softly. If he said it at normal volume I'd think he was just paying me a generic compliment ­ an obligatory social nicety. But his voice was so quiet that only I could hear, and the implications of that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. "So do you." He looks good in a dress shirt, or maybe it's just the way this shirt actually fits him. He swims in the sweaters and long-sleeved tees he wears on a regular day. Edward smiles at the compliment and turns to open the car door for me. Oh God. "You know this isn't a real date, right?" "I know." His smile wavers a little. "I'll drive you home whenever you like." I get into the car and he closes the door after me. I wonder if he opened it for me to prove to Charlie that his daughter isn't going out with some asshole, or because he's trying to get something out of me. He holds open a few doors, does the gentlemanly thing in public, and in return my hand goes down his pants by the end of the night. Thus altruism dies with a groan and a sticky mess. It takes thirty long seconds for Edward to get in the car and pull away from the house and my glaring father on the porch. As eager as I was to get away, once alone in the car with Edward, I start to get nervous. What the hell did I get myself into? "What are you expecting tonight?" My question puzzles him. "A fun night out, where I ­ hopefully ­ don't get sick during." We come to the stop sign at the end of my street and he looks over at me with furrowed brows. "What are you 188

expecting?" "I don't know." I really don't. Confusion is starting to become my natural state around Edward. The drive to Port Angeles doesn't feel as long as it usually does. Edward keeps the conversation going, chattering in a nervous way until we're on the highway, and then he begins to relax a little. "Are you going to tell me where we're going?" "No. I enjoy surprises." "But you already know." "I enjoy giving surprises." He looks over at me and smiles. "I hope you're hungry." Suddenly the sheer lunacy of the prospect of going to dinner with Edward hits me, and I laugh. What the hell am I doing here? I don't do normal, pedestrian things like dinner dates. As little face-time as I can get with a guy while still satisfying us both is my preferred MO ­ it's clean, it's uncomplicated, and I don't miss them when they're gone. "What's the joke?" "You wouldn't get it." It's starting to get dark as we enter Port Angeles. Edward heads down the main strip, past the tidy rows of independent shops, before pulling onto a side street. He parks along the curb near the post office and says this is the closest parking to where we're headed. "Ready?" We have to walk about a block through the old side streets of Port Angeles before rounding the corner toward a sidewalk-side plaza with a food co-op and a new age bookstore. Edward points out the third and farthest storefront, and our destination. I can't help but chuckle when I see the sign. The Circle: Lounge and Gastropub. Underneath the main shingle is a poster with their hours of business and a guarantee of "the finest vegan cuisine in Port Angeles." I don't think they have much competition for that title. "It was your idea," Edward says with a smirk. He has a point, and a damn good idea it was. He'll have more of a selection here than he would on the average restaurant menu. Inside, The Circle feels a lot like a living room. Tables of varying sizes and shapes share the Ushaped dining space with couches and easy chairs. Bookshelves line the walls and there is a coffee bar on the left wall. In the centre of the restaurant a wide-beamed staircase leads up to an open loft and further dining space. No two pieces of furniture are the same, making the seating as eclectic as the books on the shelves. Slow music plays at low volume, emphasizing the easygoing atmosphere of the restaurant. "For two?" a passing waitress asks. "Please." He gives her his name to cross off the reservation list. "Sit wherever you feel most comfortable." She continues on to serve other patrons, and Edward gestures that I should select our seats. I choose the back corner. It's quieter than the front of the restaurant or the area near the coffee bar, and not far from the bathrooms. Edward takes the seat nearest the wall and I move my chair to sit beside him instead of across. "Would you rather have this seat?" "No." I shake my head. "I just like to people-watch." True enough, but I also don't like the face-toface setup; it feels too much like a date, which this isn't. The waitress comes by with two menus and a pitcher of water. She looks sort of badass, with a labret in her lip and dreads knotted into a bun. I like her immediately because she looks without staring. I give a little sigh of relief when I open the menu and see that the general ingredients of each dish 189

are listed. That'll make it easier for Edward to order. I find myself scanning the list of options for something he can eat before I even consider my own selection. Edward frowns at the menu like it's written in Swahili. "The unbeef stew looks good." He looks up and I point to the item on his menu. It's not so different from the soups I've made for him recently, except that it contains tofu and a little more spice than I would venture to use. "It does look good." He gives me a grateful little smile and clears his throat. "What are you getting?" I order the veggie potpie with a side of chickpea salad. Edward orders the unbeef stew and decides to stick with water for a beverage. So I order a glass of soymilk that I can trade with him if the stew is too spicy. "I don't understand soymilk," he says when the waitress leaves with our order. "It's not really milk, so why pretend?" "I think 'soy juice' would be a hard sell." This is a neat little place Edward chose. I would come here for the books alone. They're eclectic and rare and some of them are meant to be signed by diners, like a guestbook. I reach around Edward's head and pluck a copy of Jane Eyre off the wall shelf. It's a well-kept second edition, printed in London. I wonder how it ended up in a vegan lounge in Port Angeles. "Have you read it?" he asks. "A time or two." Gross understatement. "I own two copies ­ I loaned one to my grandma and she killed it." Edward smirks. "How do you kill a book?" "You read it to death ­ until the pages are loose and the glue on the spine is crumbling and the covers are bent and the corners are dog-eared. I still have the beat up copy, but it's so fragile it's practically unreadable. I had to buy a new one." "She must have really liked that book." He takes the restaurant's copy out of my hand and skims through it. The pages smell old and the canvas cover is discolored with light damage. "She wasn't much of a reader, but she did like the Brontes." "Doesn't it bug you to volunteer at the hospital?" Edward asks suddenly. "It must remind you of..." He leaves the sentence hanging. He can't describe what he means, and there's no need to. "No. It's...comforting." If he had eyebrows, one would be raised right now. "After awhile it feels...like only the people there get it. Everyone is dealing with tough shit ­ the nurses who care but are tough as nails, the patients, the families.... It's the only place where I really fit in anymore." "You fit in well at school." "I lie through my teeth at school." Edward smirks at me. "I figured." The unbeef stew has chunks of potato, tofu and vegetable floating in the broth. Edward doesn't attempt these at first, playing it safe with spoonfuls of broth. I've eaten with him every day at school for over a month now, but when it's just the two of us it's different. I try not to eat too fast so he won't feel rushed. "How's your potpie?" It's surprisingly tasty, for a vegan dish. The filling is creamy and the crust is flaky without being dry. The chickpea salad is equally delicious, served with garlic bread for dipping. I offer Edward a taste of the latter, but it's too sweet for his liking. "Must be the relish." 190

"Well damn," he says. "What?" "I always liked relish on hotdogs." "You might again, eventually." He shrugs like he doesn't hold out much hope, and I make a mental note to hunt down a recipe for mild relish. Edward spears a chunk of tofu with his fork. "Should I?" What am I, the food whisperer? "Chew it slowly." He's used to soft and pureed foods. He'll have to chew long and carefully to avoid affecting his stomach. At first I think it's the tofu that gives him a hard time, the way he makes that face, but the potatoes and carrots subsequently present the same difficulty. The stew is almost room temperature now because of his slow pace, so heat shouldn't be an issue. "Are you okay?" "Yeah." Edward winces. "It's just tough to hold it on my tongue for so long." "Too spicy?" "No." He shakes his head. "Just...a lot of flavor." I offer him my soy juice to take the edge off, and he accepts. From the outside we must look like an old couple ­ chewing long and slow, with up to a minute between bites. Edward's bites become smaller and smaller as he attempts to compensate for the strong flavor and the amount of time he has to chew. His pace slows to a crawl and I can see he's struggling to work up the nerve to take each small bite. I squeeze the hand that holds his spoon. "You don't have to finish it." "I just need a break." He sets his spoon down and turns his attention to me. "Tell me something." "What?" "Anything. Where did you work when you lived in Phoenix?" "I had a part-time gig at this little shop called Independent Music." Edward's eyes light up like I've just revealed some wonderful secret. "It's a store that specializes in vinyl and recording equipment ­ microphones, speakers, and the like. A lot of the regular customers would give the employees free tickets to their shows. The boss called it 'market research' to get all the staff to go." "And why the hell did you leave Phoenix?" Independent Music was the perfect job. He would have loved it, too. If he had grown up in Phoenix, we probably would have met at that music store. "There were a few reasons, but the more immediate was that my mom had to travel indefinitely, and I couldn't be left alone. So here I am bonding with Charlie." "You seem pretty responsible. Why couldn't your Mom let you stay home while she travelled?" "She probably would have, but Social Services didn't like the idea." "What?" I casually wave away the subject. "Nothing major. My parents divorced when they were really young and I wasn't even a year old ­ Social Services had a file on my custody situation." And that's all he needs to know. I steal a piece of potato from Edward's bowl and he pretends to scowl at me. "What about you?" "What about me?" "Any fascinating student jobs?" He shakes his head. "I temped one summer as a filing clerk for the architecture firm my mom works for." 191

"In between stints at music camp?" Edward's eyes narrow. "Yes," he answers carefully. "It's not as dorky as you think." "You don't know what I think." "Enlighten me." "You eat, I'll talk." I nod to his bowl. Edward grudgingly breaks off a piece of carrot with his spoon and begins to chew at a glacial pace. "In my experience, the band kids are always the wildest fuckers, next to the stoners." Last year my high school's band made it to regionals, and the condition the bus returned in became a sort of legend. It was absolutely trashed, and from the looks of the wreckage, it was one hell of a party between Phoenix and Tucson. The school suspended the kids who posted photos of the competition afterparty on the internet. Edward points out that he wasn't a band kid. "Music camp is more politics than party. It's wildly competitive." "Art is vanity." He smirks wryly at that. "So how many people wanted to strangle you when you won that competition to play with the orchestra?" Edward's cheeks turn pink. I don't understand his sense of embarrassment ­ it's an accomplishment to be proud of, not to hide. "Well," he says slowly. "About five wanted to strangle me ­ the five that were also in the running for the top spot. And then there were another four pianists who didn't qualify to begin with, but who still would have enjoyed dislocating my fingers one by one." "But they all smiled and congratulated you, didn't they?" "That's the culture of performers for you." "I used to do ballet," I volunteer. Edward seems to be struggling not to laugh. "Really?" "Yeah, but I sucked, so they always put me in the back row." This time he does laugh. "Is that why you swore off dancing?" "No, that was later. You know how uncoordinated I am." "You're referring to your inability to walk across a flat, stable surface without finding something to trip over?" "We all have our weaknesses." I steal a carrot out of his bowl. "I fall down, you throw up." "I haven't all week." I give him the eye. "What, you think you're better than me now?" He snort-laughs at that. I better not ever crack a joke while he's drinking. The results would be disastrous. "It's good to hear you're feeling better." I nudge him under the table with my foot. Edward nudges me back. The waitress comes by to clear away my empty plate. She asks if Edward is finished, even though his bowl still has plenty of food in it. He admits he's eaten all he can and the waitress offers dessert menus. I'm not hungry enough for dessert, and Edward isn't either. "Do you drink coffee?" he asks. The way he asks makes it seem like he wants me to say yes so we can stay here longer. This is sort of a record for us in terms of comfortable conversation. "Two mint teas, please," I tell the server. She leaves with the order and Edward quietly tells me that he really isn't up to eating or drinking anything else. "I don't expect you to finish it. A mouthful or two is enough ­ it cleanses the pallet. How's your stomach?" 192

"Fine. Full." "A little mint tea helps digestion." We're both too wussy to drink the tea steaming hot, anyway. We end up staying at The Circle for another hour, waiting for the tea to cool and sipping slowly. There are no lulls or gaps in conversation ­ everything and nothing is a suitable topic, from his favorite haunts in Seattle to places I want to see but have never been, and what we'd each choose if we could have a superpower. "Telepathy," Edward declares without hesitation. "Nosey fucker, aren't you?" "Oh, very," he says with a laugh. "What about you?" "Invisibility." Edward nods. "Sounds like you." "And you say you don't get me." "I don't." "Liar." The drive home feels even shorter than the drive to Port Angeles. Edward even walks me to the door at the end of the night. None-date or not, that's a new thing for me. "Thanks for coming out with me," Edward says. "I had fun." "I did too." My simple admission makes him beam. "This was...nice. Not at all what I was expecting." The corner of Edward's mouth turns up. "What were you expecting?" He slips his hands into his pockets and I look him up and down, trying to find the right words to explain what I had in mind before we went out. He dressed nicely, made an actual dinner reservation, treated me politely and asked me about myself; all new things for me, but none of them wholly unpleasant. I shrug. "I dunno. That it would blow up in our faces and make school awkward. Or that we would just piss each other off and I'd have to find a place to bury you in pieces." Edward chuckles at that. Anyone else would have been freaked out, but he gets my humor. "Thanks. This was...different." "Better than the hypothetical?" "Much." Edward smiles and I half-turn to put my key in the door. I wonder if I should invite him in. I usually don't tell guys where I live, never mind bring them home, but this technically wasn't a date and it's not like Edward hasn't been inside my house before. Warm fingers touch the underside of my chin, turning my head gently. When my face comes around he's right there, closer than I expected and leaning down to my level. He kisses me, and it is the strangest sensation I've felt in a long time. He uses so little pressure that the warmth of his skin is more noticeable than his lips ­ they are as soft as I once imagined. It's a chaste kiss, but he lingers over it; not long enough to be gross, but enough to give the impression that he enjoys it. When he pulls away he doesn't go far. Our foreheads are practically touching, and the hand he used to turn my face toward him is still resting on the side of my neck. With anyone else I would find such a hand placement intensely uncomfortable, but now it's...oddly tolerable. "Bella?" I don't know what I'm supposed to say. Or do I return the gesture? Some reaction is due, obviously, I just don't know what. "Um." I close my eyes, trying to pick one thought from among the dozen ideas swarming around my head like bees. Edward takes my closed eyes as an invitation and leans in to kiss me again. There's heat behind it this time. I don't know if it's him leaning in or me leaning back, but soon my 193

back comes up against the front door. Edward sighs against me and brushes his thumb along my jaw line in a slow, appreciative way, like he's studying me. His right hand finds mine and laces our fingers together. My other hand drops my keys. Fuck me, he actually feels good. And that's when it hits me that I'm kissing Edward Cullen pressed up against the door of my father's house. It's like looking down on myself from above, watching this moment, and wondering where the hell the real me went. Pushed up against the door? What is this, some crappy rom-com? I wrap my arms around his neck and push him right back. Edward's hands go to my waist like he's trying to catch me, and we take two steps back ­ far enough for his back to come up against the porch rail. His hands fist around the sides of my blouse, pulling me closer. I half expect him to grab my ass, but he doesn't. I could get used to this whole gentleman thing. I'm not sure if it's the drugs in him or what, but his kisses leave a strange heat behind on my skin when he moves his lips. He sort of pecks when he kisses, closing his lips around mine, drawing his lower lip across mine with just a hint of suction before pulling away, tight-lipped, and coming back for another. I take his lower lip between mine before he can pull away and suck on it gently. He gives a soft sigh and grabs me tighter. I slowly unwind my arms from around his neck, coming down around his shoulders to his front. Suddenly he breaks away and yanks my right hand off his chest. "What?" He doesn't immediately answer. His lips are a little swollen and he's out of breath. But I get it before he has to explain: my hand came close to touching his central line. "Did I hurt you?" "No." Edward looks at me searchingly, waiting, no doubt, for disgust or hesitancy. I twist my hand out of his grip and place it on his waist instead of his chest. "Maybe we should stop," he says. "You want to?" Edward hesitates over that one, biting how lower lip. He wants to keep going, even if he thinks he should stop. I regret touching his chest now. I shouldn't have spooked him like that. "Or we could stop talking and continue," I offer. And for the first time since I've known him, he doesn't argue with my suggestion. Charlie is still up when I get inside. He looks me up and down with the suspicious eye of a parent and asks how my evening went. "It was nice. We went to a vegan place in Port Angeles." "Vegan?" My meat-eating, fish-catching, deer-hunting dad makes the term 'vegan' sound like a horrible swear word. "Are you turning vegan?" I can see he's worried what my cooking would turn into if I did decide to change my diet. "No, I was just trying something new." Charlie grunts in a gesture of both suspicion and acceptance, and asks if I'm in for the night. I tell him that I am and excuse myself to take a shower. When I get upstairs I study myself in the mirror while the water heats up. My lips are a little red, but not enough to explain the strange tingling sensation. It's lessened since I stopped kissing Edward, but still noticeable. It doesn't taste like morphine, which feels sort of numbing. He has long since finished chemo, so it shouldn't burn. I don't know his other drugs well enough to speculate about them. Those meds are probably for his transplant, and I have no experience in that area. I step into the shower and stand with my face directly under the spray, holding my breath until I can't anymore. The water isn't even that warm yet, but my skin feels hot and sticky, the way it used to after spending time outdoors in Phoenix. I'm too pale to feel so sun-kissed. I try to imagine what school will be like on Monday, but I can't. Before we said goodbye he said he 194

wanted to make plans again. I should have said no, but instead I said I knew a place where we could go on Wednesday. It's just a little place I like to go when the weather is nice, but I should have thought things through before I invited Edward there ­ before I invited him to think that we're somehow dating. I dry off and change into pajamas, still ruminating about all the ways Wednesday can go wrong, and all the awkwardness that could happen between now and then. My phone rings and Edward smirks up at me from the screen. "Did you forget something?" "No." I can hear him smiling. "I just wanted to say goodnight." I thought we said goodnight on the porch? "Oh. Goodnight then." "I had fun tonight." "I'm glad." "Did you?" "Yeah, I did." As weird as it was, no single moment stands out as painful or unpleasant ­ even if I am panicking a little about seeing him at school on Monday. "Can I take you out again sometime?" "We already made plans for Wednesday." "Yeah, but I mean -" "Edward," I tell him firmly, "you're doing that thing where you try to monopolize me." "Sorry. Wednesday." "Sleep well." "You too." I hang up and set my phone aside. I can't decide if Edward is cute or just desperately needy. Most people wait longer than thirty minutes to call back after a date. Er, a non-date. I go to turn out the lights and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror above my dresser. My face is red. Fuck. I flick the light off so I don't have to look at myself and crawl under the covers. I have a feeling that space is going to become an issue between Edward and I, but it doesn't worry me as much as it used to. We've negotiated this already. We'll deal when it comes up again. Two months ago I would never have thought this of him, but I actually enjoy his company when he loses the sarcastic veneer of bullshit and bitterness. He's most beautiful when he allows himself to be.

Sunday

When I go downstairs for breakfast I find Charlie at the dining room table. I guess he's skipping a Sunday of fishing for once. He gestures to a pot on the stove and says there's oatmeal if I want it, but upon inspection it just looks like a clump of burnt oats. I can see why he ordered so much pizza before I moved in. "Uh, thanks, but I'll just have cereal." "Hmph. Something wrong with my cooking?" "No, not at all. I just, you know, want to...live." I pour myself a bowl of cereal while Charlie stubbornly persists in eating his burnt oats. "I talked to your mother last night," Charlie announces as I reach from the milk. I look up so fast that I bang my head on the lip of the freezer. "Easy, kid." "What did you talk to Mom about?" Charlie and Renee are generally on good terms, but they don't have much to say to each other after so many years unless they're discussing me. Charlie pulls out the dining chair next to him, inviting me to sit. I stand there with the milk carton 195

in my hand and wait for him to get to the fucking point. "Bells, what would you think of maybe finding someone to talk to while you're here?" "No." "Your mom thinks--" "Mom agreed to ship me off to Forks so I could get a clean break. No more doctors, no more meds, no more group sessions ­ no more fucking up my life." "Yes, she did agree with that," Charlie answers mildly. "But you're breaking your half of the bargain." "How? My grades are good, I'm starting a new job tomorrow, I volunteer ­ my life here is about as vanilla as it gets." Charlie sighs. "You're putting yourself back to square one, getting close to the Cullen boy. You wanted a clean break, so don't put yourself in a position to get hurt. I don't want to see you suffer like that again." "Are you telling me not to hang out with Edward anymore?" I can hardly avoid seeing him, us being lab partners and all, but if Charlie was bound and determined he could put a real damper on the time I spend with Edward outside of school. "It's great that you're being nice to him, but leave it at that. You're a smart girl ­ I want you to think long and hard about what would happen if he got sick again. Don't be getting attached to people who can hurt you so bad." Too late. "I'll think about it." I put the milk back in the fridge and leave without eating breakfast. I just want to go to the hospital, even though I'll be early for my volunteer shift. I need to be in a familiar place and to keep my hands busy, because I really don't want to think about it like I told Charlie I would. I can't picture Edward's absence. I could picture Grandma's before she died; where the hole in my life would be. It turned out bigger than I imagined, but at least I could see it coming. I can't imagine my life in Forks without Edward. He's too ingrained in my routine. When the hell did I allow that to happen? The text I receive mid-morning confirms it: My place or yours today? We can cook here, if you like. It's practically a given that we use our free time to do things together. He even knows what I would most like to be doing right now. Damn it. I'm volunteering today. After? I need to think. I should at least try to think it through, for Charlie's sake. I don't want to worry him, and as much as it displeases me, he has a point. I consider calling Mom when I break for lunch, but I already know what she would say. She's one to put faith in professional help, and I'm sick of that scene. I slouch lower in the cafeteria chair and turn my iPod on to drown out the noise of plates and utensils clinking. Charlie may have a point, in theory ­ if Edward should get sick again, if I get attached enough to be hurt by him. But thinking of last night, I can't put a bad label on Edward. He treated me better than any other guy ever has. I enjoyed being with him. I liked kissing him, even if it did feel a little weird. I try to imagine distancing myself from Edward again. The first time I was fueled by resentment and fear, and that made it easier to stick to it. Cold hard reason is a flimsier reason to inflict such pain on both of us, especially after I promised not to cut him out again. The idea of life without him around bothers me much more than it rightfully should. He pops up in my thoughts for the rest of the day at times when I least expect it. I haven't even spoken to him today, and by the end of my shift I feel like I've spent the whole day in his company. 196

Part of me wants to go over to the Cullen house, but the other part of me knows better than to give my parents more ammo. Before I even leave the hospital I lie down across the bench seat in my truck and call Angela. She's a good listener, and insightful without being nosey. Mrs. Weber passes the phone off to Angela, who sounds like she's in a good mood. Maybe something happened with Ben. "What are you up to?" I ask. "Not much. Gardening with my dad." "You want to go do something?" It's a ridiculous request. It's four-o-clock on a Sunday, and most business in Forks close at noon today, if they open at all. There's nowhere for us to go. "What did you have in mind?" "I don't care. I just need to get out of my head. I've been thinking in circles all day." "Oh. Okay. Something heavy on your mind?" Only about a hundred and thirty pounds worth; not terribly heavy. "Nah, it's just a riddle I can't solve, is all." "Can I hear it?" "The riddle is a person." Angela hums softly. "And you can't get this person out of your head?" "No, I can. Just not for long." "Sounds like you're interested." "So how's Ben?" Angela giggles ­ and she's not the giggling type. I can practically hear her blushing over the phone. "I asked him to prom. Got tired of waiting." She giggles again. That must mean things went well. "Tell me everything." I get home feeling pleasantly numb. Hearing all about Angela's happiness did wonders for my uneasiness over the Edward question. But now that I'm alone again, the vicious cycle of dead-end thoughts starts again. I stand in front of my mirror and study myself. I don't look that different than I did a few months ago. Maybe a little paler, if that's even possible. I'm not growing rust yet, like Phil joked I would. Angela said I sounded 'interested.' Am I? I tilt my head to the side, watching my reflection respond to that thought. The only crush I've ever had was on my fourth grade teacher, and it lasted all of one week. This doesn't feel the same. I notice what he wears and when he smiles and I put more effort into cooking for him than I do for anyone else. I think about him too much. I let myself get too relaxed when I'm in his company ­ he slowly pulls all my secrets out of me. If this is what a real crush feels like, I fucking hate it.

197

15. April 20 to 24

Sunday

The house is quiet when I get home. The living space is dark and empty, and sounds of life on the second floor are minimal. Just two months ago Mom waited up for me, eager to hear if I was getting a social life. I suppose I should be glad that it's old news now, but part of me is itching to tell someone how fucking wonderful my night was. I go upstairs and fall down on my bed, grinning from ear to ear. The whole thing went better than I imagined. I didn't have to talk to her dad and justify why she was going out with Cancer Boy (even though it wasn't really a date). Talk in the car was easy and relaxed, and Bella seemed to enjoy her meal even though it was vegan. I ate real food without getting sick. And kissing her... I feel lightheaded just thinking about it. I roll onto my back and take out my phone. I want to hear her voice one more time before I go to bed. Bella answers on the third ring. "Did you forget something?" she asks. "No. I just wanted to say goodnight." And to be the last thing on her mind before she falls asleep, like she's always the last thing on mine. "Oh. Goodnight then." "I had fun tonight." "I'm glad." "Did you?" I know I'm being greedy, but I want to hear her say it again. "Yeah, I did." "Can I take you out again sometime?" "We already made plans for Wednesday." "Yeah, but I mean -" "Edward," she says firmly, "you're doing that thing where you try to monopolize me." Shit. She's right. "Sorry. Wednesday." "Sleep well." "You too." Bella hangs up and I lay back, cruising on the high of a great night. If this ever wears off (and I doubt it will), I have anticipation for Wednesday to tide me over. A series of sharp knocks on my bedroom door interrupts my musings, and I reluctantly leave the bed to answer it. Alice stands on the other side of the threshold, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "When did you get home?" she demands. She looks me up and down and notices the phone in my hand. "How'd it go?" "Fine." She somehow reads into my monotone, monosyllabic answer and squeals shrilly. Alice throws her arms around my waist, ignoring my protests and complaints of suffocation. I dislodge her arms and she jumps up and down, flapping her hands. "Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod. Um...yay?" I can't help but laugh. She's more flustered about the whole thing than I am. "Tell me everything!" I wouldn't know where to start. I don't think I could describe half of it...at least not without sounding like a romantic sap, anyway. 198

"I'll tell you tomorrow." She's a little disappointed, but seems to understand that I'm not ready to divulge all the details. "Promise?" "Yeah." Alice walks back down the hall to her room, pausing halfway to do a series of little hops and squeal with delight. Good to know I have her rooting for me.

Sunday

I wake up sore and sallow with a grin on my face. Last night's high has carried over to today, and nothing can sour my bad mood. Not the handful of pills before breakfast, or the flimsy packaging on waterproof patches, or the fact that Emmett seems to have used most of the hot water ­ nothing. I kissed Bella and didn't get punched in the face for it. She liked it. She didn't want to stop. And best of all ­ she agreed to go out again. As I get dressed I toss around the idea of calling Bella before I head over to her house. We've been just dropping by each other's homes for weeks, but I don't want to push my luck. I've got a good thing going with her now, and I don't want to fuck it up. Shit. I pause with Bella's number half-dialed. How am I supposed to act around her now? Should I say something? Give her a kiss when I say hello? Wait for her to make the first move? Fuck this ­ I need to exploit my sister's girly intuition. I head down the hall to Alice's bedroom and knock on the door. She doesn't answer, but that's to be expected before noon on a Sunday. I open the door and step in quietly. Alice doesn't sleep like a normal person. She nests. All her bedding is clustered in the center of her mattress, and therein somewhere she lies and sleeps. "Alice?" I reach under the edge of the mass and feel around. I find what feels like an ankle and pull, and a second later Alice slides out from under the blankets like a baby giraffe falling pathetically from its mother's womb. She blinks at the light and flinches away. "Wake up." "Go away," she whines. Alice turns and tries to crawl back into her nest. I grab the back of her pajama shirt to keep her back. "I need your help." "Don't care." "Alice." "Nothing is urgent enough to wake me up at the ass crack of dawn like this." "It's ten-thirty." Alice huffs and stops struggling. She goes limp, splay-limbed on the foot of the bed. "Fine. Bring me coffee and I'll help you." "You're going to be short forever, the way you drink that stuff." "Don't care. Worth it. Coffee. Now." I go downstairs and retrieve Alice's mug from the cupboard. It's the one she uses every morning, with a big looped handle and a pink A on the side. It's also about the size of a cereal bowl. Alice likes her coffee hot, black, and in quantities large enough to send a horse into cardiac arrest. When I enter Alice's room again she's reburied herself in her nest of bedding. I pull back the two of the blankets and a little hand slips through the folds to smack me away. 199

"I brought your coffee." "I changed my mind. Come back in six hours." "Al..." She grunts from somewhere in the mound of blanket. "I kissed Bella last night." At first I think she's gone back to sleep and didn't hear me, but then her skinny hand pops out again and makes a grabbing motion. "Alright, give me that coffee." Alice sits on her bed looking very much like a zombie while I pace back and forth, outlining my questions. The more questions I voice the faster they seem to multiply. It's like having a fucking hydra in my head. Alice keeps her face in her mug, drinking steadily, and only stops to ask the odd question about what happened last night. "Give me your phone," she says when I pause for breath. I hand it over and she mutters, "What am I gonna do with you?" "What's that supposed to mean?" "You worry like a five year old girl but have the common sense of a guy. You're hopeless." Alice starts typing on my phone. "What are you texting?" Alice turns the phone around and holds it up. My place or yours today? We can cook here, if you like. It's perfect ­ exactly what Bella would want to hear, in a way that's not likely to set her off. Now why the hell couldn't I have thought of that? "Because you have a crush on her, genius," Alice says. "It's supposed to make you stupid." "Did you just call me stupid?" I try to swipe her coffee and she hisses at me like a cat. My phone buzzes with Bella's answering text and Alice retreats into her nest of blanket, hogging the phone so she can read the message first. "Give me that." "You're not gonna like it." "Give it." Alice passes my phone out from under her blanket. The text reads, I'm volunteering today. After? I need to think. I hand the phone back to Alice. "Translate." Alice merely glances at the text before tossing my phone back to me. "She needs to think." "Really? Thank you, I couldn't have worked that out for myself." Alice sticks her tongue out at me and takes another swig of coffee. "She's probably panicking a little." "What do--" "You do nothing." "But--" "She's a big girl. Let her think it out on her own. If she feels pressured she'll push you away." "But-!" "Edward," Alice rests her fingertip on my nose. "Zen, alright. There's nothing you can do but wait. Let the mountain come to Mohamed, or whatever that saying is." "The mountain doesn't come, Miss Brilliant." "Fine then, you can be the mountain." She hands me her empty coffee cup. "Is that all?" 200

"But what if--" "Ugh, silencio already," she whines. "You've done what you can. The ball's still in her court ­ just wait for her to send it back, okay?" Alice burrows back into her tangle of blankets and pillows. I have a feeling I'm not going to get any further help out of her at the moment. Neither of us are morning people, but she's an extreme case. "See you in six hours." Alice's reply is muffled by her nest, but it doesn't sound kind. I leave her to rest, but not five minutes later Emmett ­ who is a morning person ­ starts blasting music in the next room. It's his workout playlist. She's never going to be able to sleep through that. I go downstairs for breakfast, compulsively checking my phone every five minutes, and come back upstairs to find Alice in my bed. She chose to transplant her nest to a quieter room instead of getting up. "How the hell can you sleep with a gallon of coffee in you?" "Bugger off," she slurs. "No, it's my room and I'm bored." I don't remember what I did with Sundays before Bella. I guess I wasted time with Alice, but that seems so empty now. "You're bored?" she says incredulously. "You have two hands and a penis. This shouldn't be a difficult equation." I turn around to leave. She can be a really lippy little monster when she's tired. "Don't drool on my pillow." "Too late." Despite having nothing to do, I end up having a pretty productive day. I actually finish my homework for once, make soup for lunch, and do laundry. I missed the smell of the laundry room most when I was in the hospital. The hum of the machines is calming and the detergent smells nice and dryer-warmed towels are the next best thing to heaven, I'm sure. After I finish my own washing I throw Mom and Dad's in, but together it isn't enough to make a full load. I enter Alice's room without knocking and head for her hamper in the corner. It's almost two-oclock and she's still in pajamas. "I'm pilfering your darks." Alice grunts to acknowledge that she at least heard me, even if she didn't listen. I dig a few dark tshirts out of the hamper, some stray socks, and-- What. The. Fuck. The possibility that the lace thong at the bottom of her hamper belongs to some other girl is so much easier to swallow than the thought of my baby sister buying lingerie. If she's really a lesbian and that jackass is right, I will happily tolerate her girlfriend's presence. Anything is better than the idea of her wearing sexy underwear with him in mind. "Edward?" Alice looks over at me curiously. I bet the look on my face suggests I'm about to have a stroke. "Excuse me, I need to go bleach my eyeballs." Right after I incinerate that fucking thong. I pass Emmett in the hallway and he asks if I'm all right. "You don't want to know." Let him keep an image of sweet, innocent little Alice in his head a while longer. It's too late for me ­ some things cannot be un-seen. Mom emerges from her office around two-thirty, eager-eyed and buzzing with energy. Work must be going well. She sees me folding clothes out of the dryer and says, "It's so nice that you're getting your energy back." She gives me a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek and says, "I'm spring cleaning my office. Want to help?" 201

Spring cleaning Mom's office is like purging a bleached forest. She gets rid of all her drafts and incomplete drawings, fills two garbage bags with recycling, and finds about a hundred things she thought were lost. These newly found items tend to sidetrack her a lot. Eventually she forgets spring cleaning altogether and hunches over her drafting table, muttering something about girders. I make myself at home in the corner with her shredder. It was my favorite non-toy when I was a kid, and still doesn't fail to amuse. I'm feeding pages through one at a time for the fun of it when Alice walks by the office door carrying a toy baton. She sees me looking and puts a finger to her lips. "What?" I mouth. Alice points behind her and continues on to the end of the hall. I lean out the door to see what she was pointing at. From this angle I can see part of the living room. Emmett is asleep on the couch with the TV on. Alice props the side door open with her old baton. She's got running shoes and a jacket on ­ Emmett is about to get his comeuppance for waking her up this morning. I look over my shoulder at Mom. She's still absorbed in her girders. Alice tiptoes down the hall, trying not to let her rubber soles squeak on the floor, and leans over Emmett. She gets in real close and blows softly on his face. The breeze is just enough to disturb Emmett. He wrinkles his nose in his sleep and swats a hand across his cheek. Alice keeps at it until he opens his eyes, and then she lurches into action. "Facepalm!" She brings her palm down on his forehead with a crack and runs like hell. The side door is the closest, so she sprints down the hallway. The door is already open ­ all she has to do is grab the baton on her way past and run as fast as she can for the cover of the surrounding woods. "Fuck." Emmett rolls off the couch with a hand to his head, stumbling a little. He starts after Alice and I switch off the shredder. It takes very precise timing, but I manage to throw Mom's swivel chair out into the hall at the exact moment Emmett runs past. The collision in such a narrow hall sends him head over heels in the most impressive acrobatic display I've seen in a long time. He and the chair tumble to the floor with a crash and a few loud obscenities. Mom doesn't even look up. "Turn that TV down," she says. I dash out of the office and run in the opposite direction from Alice, toward the front door. Emmett can only chase one of us. It seems like a great idea until I catch up to Alice in the driveway. She doubled-back around the house to cross the creek. "What the hell are you doing?" I grab her by the back of her jacket and stuff her into the narrow space between the wall of the garage and the garbage cans. I hear the side door slam behind Emmett and I take off toward the screen of trees. At least I know he's out for Alice's blood first, since he used the side door. I'm at a disadvantage in the forest around our home. Emmett is an avid hiker who knows the landmarks well, and I haven't been outdoors much since we moved here. I follow the grade of the land down toward the ravine and sit down in a little niche on the riverbank. The curve of the bank hides me well enough, and I need to rest after that run. Soon enough I'm going to regret not bringing a jacket. The forest is peaceful, but I have a hard time appreciating it. The calls of birds make me jump and the way the branches rustle in the breeze makes me think I hear Emmett coming to kick my ass. By the time I hear footsteps they're too close for me to make another run for it. I press my back further into the niche, hoping to hide. Alice jumps off the bank and lands in front of me. The suddenness of her appearance startles me and I bump my head on an exposed root. "Ow!" "Shhh!" Alice puts a hand over my mouth. She's got a wicked grin on. "Have you heard Emmett?" "No." 202

Alice reaches into her pocket and pulls out Mom's car keys and Emmett's wallet. "Want to go for ice cream?" Alice gets a triple-scoop cone of chocolate, cotton candy and peanut butter ripple. What the hell, Emmett's paying, right? I get plain vanilla and we take our cones back out to the car. "Here's to a good last meal," Alice toasts. We 'clink' cones. It might very well be our last meal. Who knows what kind of revenge Emmett will exact for this. "Where'd you get the idea to do that, anyway?" "Oh, I've been scheming over that one for awhile," she says. "I just needed the perfect opportunity." She smiles proudly and takes a big bite of ice cream. Alice doesn't fully grasp the point of ice cream cones. She bites with her lips instead of licking them. I'm glad she's so inept, because that's one less way for her to tease any guy who might have the wrong idea about her. It's not safe to go back to the house yet, so we discuss where to go next. Alice votes for the beach. "Do you want to drive?" The roads are pretty quiet in Forks on a Sunday. Alice won't be eligible to apply for her learner's permit for another month, but I think she can handle a short drive to the beach. It's partly my fault she can't get her permit yet, anyway. "Really?" "Yeah." I get out of the car and we switch sides. Alice has to adjust the driver's seat all the way forward to reach the pedals. I make her try all the signals before we even shift out of park, and it takes some fiddling with the mirrors before they're at the right angle for her. "Okay, back out ­ slowly." We make it out of the parking lot without incident. Alice is a little jerky on the brake, but she does okay. I coach her along the quietest route toward the beach road, down suburban streets and well-worn logging roads. She stays almost fifteen miles below the speed limit the whole way at my insistence, and I can tell it annoys her. "I have to learn to drive the actual limit, you know." "Not until you're legal to drive, you don't." She's going to be a speed demon when she gets her license. I just know it. The parking lot at the beach entrance is empty when we arrive. It's not exactly a nice day, and there isn't enough wind to tempt surfers. Alice asks if she can try backing into a spot. There are no lines to mark parking spaces here. It's just a square of graveled area with a No Dumping sign posted. With no one to hurt and nothing to crash into, and no "real" spots to trip her up, I don't see the harm. It takes her nearly five minutes to park straight, but it's still not bad for her first try. "I think I'm going to like driving," she says as we get out of the car. "That's what worries me." I don't have a jacket, so I open the trunk and take out the emergency blanket Mom keeps there in case of breakdown during the winter. I fold it in half and wrap it around my shoulders for the walk down the beach. Alice runs ahead a little bit, splashing in the shallow puddles that form in the dunes. Whenever she finds a flat rock she runs up to the surf to skip it. Her all-time record is eight skips on a single throw. She throws another and we count the skips out loud, cheering it on. Only six this time. Alice starts hunting for another flat rock. My phone buzzes in my pocket. Bella's volunteer shift must be over. I open my inbox to find: Stay out of my thoughts, damn it. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to have you pop up in my head all day? Uh, and that's my fault? My first instinct is to do the polite thing and apologize, even though I have no control over the situation. Alice sees me looking at my phone and comes bounding over for a look. 203

"Aw, she's thinking about you," she coos. She got that out of Bella's scathing message? Alice takes my phone and types a reply. Sorry, but I like it here. You'll just have to deal with it ;) "Who the hell taught you how to flirt?" Alice hands back my phone as she considers my question. "Prime time TV and Tanya, I think." Thank God she didn't say Kate. My phone vibrates with Bella's reply and Alice practically tackles me in her eagerness to read it. Don't answer this call. Let it go to voicemail. My phone starts ringing a second later. Both Alice and I stand there and stare at the phone between us, like its ringing is somehow unusual or puzzling. It comes to the end of its ring cycle and a few minutes later I receive a voicemail alert. "She left you a long message," Alice says. Despite the blanket, I'm getting cold. I pocket my phone and we head back to the car, back to the house. We're barely out of the parking lot before Alice asks if she can listen to Bella's voicemail. "No." "You're going to show it to me anyway so I can make sense of it for you," she argues. She has a point, but I want to listen to it alone first. "Please?" "Fine, but if I tell you to shut it off, you shut it off, no questions asked." "Deal." Alice accesses my voicemail inbox while I drive and sets it to speakerphone so we can both hear. "You have one unheard voice message..." There's a click, followed by a blip of white noise, and then "One Step Closer" by Linkin Park starts blasting through my cell speaker. Alice looks from the phone to me and back again, questioning. "Is this some sort of joke?" No. This is Bella. This is Bella freaking out, just like Alice said she would be. The ball was in her court... We listen as the song plays out in all is excruciating misery, waiting to see if Bella left a real message at the end of the track. She didn't. She hung up just before the last notes of the song. "I don't think she's panicking," Alice says thoughtfully. "You don't?" "No. See at first I thought she was taking her time to consider, to mull things over, because of the whole cancer thing. Well, and you are an asshole, too, but now..." "What?" "I think she hates herself. Hmmm." Alice taps my phone against her chin, pondering her hypothesis. She doesn't say anything for a whole minute and it's driving me insane. "You can't just say shit like that and not follow it up with anything." "Well I dunno." Alice shrugs. "I don't think anyone can be so angry without first being angry at themselves. If she hates you she must hate herself way more." "What are you, Ghandi?" Alice sighs and sets my phone down in the cup holder. "Fine," she agrees with an Indian accent. "Ignore what I said. But if I'm right you owe me a Coke." I wait a few hours to let Bella cool off. By eight-o-clock I think it's safe to say she has probably vented into her cutting boards and saucepans, and may even be in a talking mood. I call her house line and Chief Swan answers. He passes the phone off to his daughter with a clipped, "The Cullen boy's calling for you." 204

Bella's 'hello' is terse. "Can you talk?" This isn't the kind of conversation most teens want to have with a parent lurking over their shoulder. Bella tells me to hang on, and for a few moments all I hear is footsteps and the quiet click of a door closing. "Now I can. Did you get my message?" "Your mood swings are giving me whiplash." "I'm certifiably nuts, you know." "I believe it." There's an awkward pause where she doesn't respond, and I don't know what else to say. "Did you find something to do with your day?" she says. "Yeah. Alice and I did some stuff." "That's nice." It's an uncaring, trite answer. I feel like I'm talking to a distant relative to whom I have little to say. "Why did you send me that song?" "Because it says things I can't." "If you want me to fuck off and leave you alone, just say it. Don't hide behind music and call that communication." "Did I say I wanted you to fuck off and leave me alone?" "You didn't say anything." "Well I don't want you to fuck off." "Oh, thanks, that's all cleared up now." "Cullen," she says like she's clinging to her last shred of patience. "I'm really fucking awful at describing how fucked up I am. You scare me. I scare me. I don't know what the fuck to do with you." She blows out a heavy sigh that echoes across the line. "What do you want to do with me?" "I don't know." "But you do know that you want to send me cryptic messages with angry music and avoid me whenever something changes about our friendship." "It's an Arizonian thing." I pinch the bridge of my nose. "You're insane." "I told you." I consider ending the call, just hanging up and letting her sift through her thoughts a little more, but she interrupts me. "It's fucked up," she says softly. "Something just works when I'm around you. And when I fight it, it still fucking works." I wonder if she notices the way my breath catches. "Is that so horrible?" "I don't want to argue about this." "So give in." Bella makes a frustrated sound in her throat. "I hate you." It's hard to believe that this is the same girl who invited me to keep kissing her on the porch last night. It must be absolute hell inside her head. "Do you ever feel anything besides hate?" I ask. It takes her a second to answer. "Yes," Bella says curtly. "Apathy." She hangs up on me. Wily bitch. I call her right back and Bella answers on the first ring. "You know, when someone hangs up on you, it's because they don't want to talk to you anymore." The words sound vaguely familiar. "Well too fucking bad. We're going to talk about this. You can't just avoid me whenever the hell you feel like it. You jumped off a fucking cliff, you can talk to your friend." 205

"I'll take the cliff." "Chicken." "Shut up." "No. I'm going to back you into a fucking corner like you do me and hope you smarten up." Bella huffs. "What do you want? Some touchy, feely, stream-of-consciousness monologue?" "I want to know why you're on the edge and about the break." I will make her dissect that song line by line if that's what it takes to get to the root of the matter. Bella clears her throat. "Because you'll kill me if I don't kill you first." Jesus Christ, not this again. This chick is obsessed with proverbial murder. "You don't mean that." "You have no idea," she whispers. "I said I wouldn't suck you dry." "And I'm actually inclined to believe you." She snorts like she thinks she's an idiot to take me at my word. "So why--" "Let me sleep on it." "You're just going to keep panicking until you deal with this." "You want me to deal with it right this second?" she says like she's answering a challenge. She's absolutely wicked when she's in a stubborn mood. "Here's dealing with it: I swore off a lot of shit when I moved here, and that included guys. You're the first guy whose last name I knew before I kissed you. You're the first one I've even thought about when you're not around. You do not bode well for my attempt self-improvement and I'm losing the capacity to give a shit about that." I swallow. I swallow again. She just dumped a shit-ton of stuff to think about on my lap. This is the first time Bella has ever volunteered information about her regular day-to-day life in Phoenix, and I don't know what to make of it. "How come you never talk about Arizona?" I ask. "You talk about your family there, but..." "I told you ­ you can't go home again. What's the point of even looking at it in the rearview?" "So that other people can know you." "I am not where I come from." "Who you come from doesn't sound so fulfilling." "What the fuck do you know?" "Nothing. You won't tell me." "I will. Someday. And then you can hate me too." "Stop hating yourself." "Stop punishing yourself for having cancer," she retorts. I open my mouth to rejoin but nothing comes out. I have absolutely nothing to say to that. I don't even know if she's right or wrong ­ I simply have no words to respond. Finally I say, "No I don't." Not even I'm convinced by that denial. "Yes you do," Bella argues tiredly. "You do it all the fucking time. You walk around acting like you're so damn unworthy of whatever nice thing people do for you at school. You get all pissy whenever Alice attempts to have her own life, even though you readily ditch her to go lead your own, and then you spew guilt all over the fucking place trying to make it up to her." "Alice has nothing to do with -" "Yes she does. You punish yourself with guilt that you needed to use her to achieve your own health." I sit there with the phone pressed to my ear, gaping. Her forwardness doesn't surprise me ­ when has she ever held back on the snark? ­ it's the fact that she's right. 206

"That's between Alice and I." I intended to say it firmly, but the words come out meek and muted. "Fine." "But you do hate yourself." "That's between me and I." I hate how she can twist words like that. "I'm coming over." "What?" "I'll be there in twenty." I hang up before she can argue and head downstairs to borrow Mom's car. Nine-o-clock isn't exactly a typical hour for a social visit. Chief Swan looks at me like I should know better when he answers the door. "Something I can help you with?" "May I please come in and speak to Bella?" Chief Swan looks like he's about to say no and perhaps give me a stern lecture. "Let him in." "Bells, it's a school night." "He won't be long." Chief Swan grudgingly steps aside and lets me over the threshold. Bella stands above us, halfway down the stairs. She has that apathetic look in her eye ­ the one that makes me feel like she can see right through me like I'm a ghost. Bella gestures with a nod. "Come up." Bella closes her bedroom door behind us and invites me to sit wherever. I stand. "I'm not leaving until you talk," I tell her gently. "About what?" "You know what." Bella grimaces and folds her arms over her chest. She leans back against her door and gnaws on the inside of her cheek nervously. "Relax, you're not on trial for murder." "Shut up," she snaps. "Don't fucking belittle me." My first impulse is to return her sudden aggression with more of the same, but I've learned what taking her bait leads to. She always wins. She always finds a way. So I don't play along. "What spooked you this time?" It's a simple question and hard to avoid, stated plainly like that. "You did." "How?" "You just did." "Are you sure it was me?" I went out of my way to treat her well last night. I let her have her space today when she asked for it. It was a gamble to kiss her last night, but she gave every impression that she liked it. Bella huffs. "No." "If I told you to say what was on your mind, would you?" I add a sarcastic tilt of the eyebrow. My tone irritates her and she latches onto the bait. "I might actually like you," she retorts. "There. Fucking happy?" Uh...ecstatic. I start to smile and then scale it back. I don't want her to think I'm somehow amused by her confession. "That's what's got you all riled up?" 207

"Yeah." She frowns bitterly and bites her cheek again. It's like she's mad at herself for feeling something beyond hate and apathy ­ or for blurting it out like that. Or because she knows it's a bad idea. You knew it was a long shot she'd ever want you. Last night on the porch was a fluke. Can't blame her for not wanting you. You don't even want you. "I can see how that might be...upsetting." Bella's gaze snaps up from the floor to meet mine and her eyes flash with that familiar anger. "I mean, I get it. I know I'm not...a desirable option." I shrug lamely. "And you didn't know me before I got sick... or maybe that's a good thing." Bella takes her weight off the door and drops her arms. Her hands curl into fists and she actually trembles while growling at me, "That is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard." "No it's not. I was different before -" "Shut up." She leaves the door and marches over to her dresser. Bella reaches into the back of her top drawer and pulls out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. "Don't tell Charlie," she says as she opens the window to vent the smoke. "You're going to stand there and smoke in front of a cancer patient?" She lights up without hesitation. She's done this before. "You know, just because you have lung cancer doesn't mean you quit craving these." She holds up the lit cigarette. "I used to swing by after school, take her outside. She couldn't get a deep enough breath to light up after awhile, but if she didn't smoke, she got real shaky and it hurt her even more." Bella sends both her breath of smoke and her ash out the window. "We had to be real quiet about it. People would have had issues with a fourteen year old helping a cancer patient light a cigarette. But it calmed her. It calms me." "She asked you to do that?" "You say that like you don't know what desperation feels like. I'm sure you've asked your family for all kinds of shit." I hate it when she's completely right about me without knowing a single detail. They've all made sacrifices for me, but none of them are angry like Bella. None of them had their investment go bust, like she did. "This was her last pack. She never finished it." Bella holds open the box top and counts the remaining cigarettes. "I smoked so many I made myself puke, the day she died. And you know what? I'm better for it. Live and learn and don't try to go back." "So why'd you do it?" "I told you all this," she says tiredly, like she's disappointed that I don't remember. "On Easter Monday. I used to store my pain in my heart and lungs, so when I hurt I felt like I was dying. Like I had no lungs left. A chest full of smoke was...grounding. It's a hell of a way to remind yourself that you've still got lungs." I scrub my hands over my face, trying to find a scrap of sanity to hold on to. It's like talking in circles with her. Any attempt to direct the conversation just gets me more lost. "I wish I'd known you before all this stuff happened to you." She looked like such a happy kid in the pictures I've seen. She was probably a really sweet girl once. Bella stubs out the remains of her cigarette and tosses the butt out the window. "And would you know me as you now," she asks levelly. "Or as the guy you were before cancer?" It's a trick question. I'm sure of it. "Before. I could have made you happy." Now all do is make her angry and miserable. "Bullshit. I would have hated you before." 208

I'm pretty sure she hates you now, too. "You don't know that. You didn't meet me until I was half-dead," I snap. "And the other you was better?" "Yes." He was whole. "Well what the fuck," she shouts, "was so fucking special about him that he's worth hanging onto? He didn't survive this, so why are you still kicking at his corpse and yelling at him to wake up?" Bella's bedroom door opens and Chief Swan steps in. "What's all the shouting about?" Bella hangs her head, shaking it slightly. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing." "Why does it smell like smoke in here?" Chief Swan eyes his daughter and points a commanding finger at her. "You said you were going to clean up your act, Bella." "I am." She reaches back to shut the window. "That was my last one." There's half a pack left on her back pocket. Chief Swan turns to me. "I think you should go. That's quite enough excitement for one night." I bet he thinks I'm a bad influence. Like I'd encourage her to inhale carcinogens after all I've been through. I wouldn't wish that kind of hell on anybody - not even Newton. My phone buzzes in my pocket during the drive home. I immediately pull over, hoping it's Bella and that we can finally get to the bottom of this. But it's not Bella. It's a text message from Alice: Got a bad feeling. Prepping mango shakes in advance. I lean forward and thump my head against the steering wheel. Fucking hell.

Monday

Bella doesn't look entirely pleased to find me at her locker when she arrives at school, but she doesn't look angry either. She wears an expression I've never seen before ­ is it nerves? "Good morning." I speak softly, like she's an unfamiliar animal I'm trying not to spook. "G'morning." "Are we still on for Wednesday?" She considers that for a moment. "Yeah," she says. "We are." "About last night..." "I'm sorry Charlie kicked you out." "Don't worry about it." I bury my hands in my pockets. "You really should stop hating yourself so much, though." "Haven't you ever made a mistake you can hardly stand to live with?" Her question blindsides me with its strangeness. It's an oddly personal question for her, too. I stand there mulling that over for a few seconds before it occurs to me that it was a genuine question and Bella expects an answer. I don't have one. "What was yours?" I ask. She wouldn't have said that unless she had a regrettable mistake like that. Bella closes her locker and says she has to get to class. I can't ask Bella what her mistake was. She's already dodged the question once, and if I keep picking at it she'll snap. I just need a bit of patience ­ she'll tell me eventually. It might be years from now, but that's fine; I intend to keep her around for a while. I slide a note her way in bio: Want to come over for dinner tonight? Can't. I have my first shift 4-8. Fuck Mike Newton straight to hell. I hope his asshole is as wide as Texas by the time Satan gets 209

bored with him. Bella passes me another note. It's directions for Wednesday. It is sort of comforting to think that Bella is going to spend time with Newton because she has to. She spends time with me because she wants to. Hard to believe, I know, but I'm glad nonetheless. Bring pepper spray to work. You worry too much. I prefer to believe that paranoia is just a healthy understanding of the nature of the universe, thank you very much. I spend the bulk of my afternoon at the piano. It's still a far cry from the marathon practice sessions I used to do regularly before I got sick, but it's progress. I play a little Mozart at Dad's request. Dad likes music "with character," as he calls it. I practice until my knuckles bleed and show up to dinner with band-aids all over my hands. "Oh, honey, take more breaks next time," Mom says when she sees all the bandages. I agree to make her feel better, and when supper is over I retire to my room for a nap. It's more tiring than it looks to play piano for three hours straight. I wake up feeling utterly content, even before I open my eyes. I smile and sigh, and then I realize that my pillow is breathing. I open my eyes to find my cheek resting against the curve between Bella's ribs and hip. When did she get here? My arm has made its way around her waist, holding her close. She has her iPod in her right hand, and the other rests against my back. "Are you awake for real this time?" she asks. Oh God. What does that mean? I look up at her where she leans against the headboard and blink the sleep away from my eyes. "Was I awake before?" "When you rolled over to put your head there you very distinctly said 'pizza.'" She chuckles while my face goes red. She hasn't told me to move yet ­ should I? "Do you need anything? Water?" Sometimes it's bloody inconvenient how well she knows my needs ­ like when I would rather let those needs go hang just to keep her close. "It can wait." "Don't suffer," she says, and slips away from me. I resist the urge to grab the back of her shirt and pull her back to me, but this bed feels empty when she's gone. I pick up her iPod in her absence and select her playlists. What else has Miss Enigmatic been listening to this week? I stare at the little screen, perplexed. Her playlists are all titled with guy's names: Phil, Mike, Jake, Edward, Tyler, Eric, Ben, and Charlie. The one titled "mom" stands out. Charlie is obviously her dad. I know who Jake and Mike are, but not why they have playlists named after them. And Tyler? Tyler Crowley? The twit who asked Bella to prom? Eric might be Eric Yorkie, the pockmarked kid she sits with at lunch. I'm not sure who Ben and Phil could be. At the bottom of the list she has a file labeled Phoenix. I open it and find a cluster of three more playlists: James, Bree, and Darryn. I go back to the main list and select the playlist she has named after me. A lot of the track titles I recognize from our bedtime music exchanges. Some I don't know. Few of them are happy songs, though. Just for comparison's sake, I look at Mike and Jake's playlists. The songs in Mike's are all over the map, but Jake has a lot of upbeat, happy songs. Bella comes back with a cup of water and I return to the main playlist page. "The fuck, Swan?" I hold up the iPod and she accepts it curiously. "What? I organize my songs by who they remind me of." 210

"Who's Phil?" "My stepdad." "Why do you have a playlist named after Tyler Crowley?" "He made quite an impression." God fucking damn it. Bella pokes my lip. "Don't pout." I gently bite her finger, holding it between my teeth while she tries to pull away. It makes her smile. "Quit trying to eat me and drink your water." I let her go and thank her for the drink. Bella settles in while I sip it. She lies down next to me this time instead of sitting against the headboard. "How was your first shift?" I set the glass aside and roll back to her. Bella rolls her eyes at the ceiling and sighs. "The job is pretty straightforward. Mrs. Newton is nice. Mike is..." "Mike." "Yeah." She doesn't say anything about the hand I rest across her stomach. I love touching her. "Did you come over here right after?" "Yeah." "I'm sorry I wasn't awake to greet you." "It's alright. I like watching you sleep." I sit up on my elbow so I can see her face better. "Did I really say 'pizza?'" "Yeah. You must have heard me giggle, too, because you followed that up with 'Olives. Don't let that fucker have any.'" She giggles again and I lower myself down from my elbow, lying much closer to her this time. "I must have been talking about Emmett. He hates olives." "Is that so?" I give Bella a squeeze. "Thanks for coming over. You really do cheer me up." Bella knits her fingers with the ones I have wrapped around her side. "I had a motive, you know." "Hmmm?" Please let it be a good one. "I'm a little embarrassed about how I freaked out on Sunday. It wasn't you ­ something my dad said made me think, and I psyched myself out and I shouldn't have taken it all out on you." I give her hand a friendly squeeze. "Thanks." "I'm sorry I shouted at you. And about the phone message. And hanging up on you. And the smoking. Fucking-A, why the hell are you still friends with me?" That makes me snort. "You have a certain charm, believe it or not. That, and you feed me." "Seriously, though, I am sorry for all that." "Apology accepted." Bella rubs her thumb along my palm, careful of the bandages. She doesn't ask what happened, but wants to know if it hurts. "Not much. It's just small cuts." "You have beautiful fingers," she says. Her voice is far away, like she's talking to herself. "Did you mean it when you said you liked me?" "Yeah." The corner of her mouth twitches up in an approximation of a smile. "I guess I do." "I guess I like you too." I give her another squeeze. "Do you want to maybe...?" "What?" "I dunno. Date?" 211

"You mean, do the couple thing?" "Yeah." "Like, call each other boyfriend/girlfriend and shit?" "The two generally go hand in hand, yes." I wonder too late if that was a bad choice of phrase. Bella wrinkles her nose. "How about we agree just to see each other?" It's difficult not to let my disappointment show. I try to appreciate her reluctance, but the result is still the same. Her acceptance comes twinned with rejection, and as good as the former feels, the latter stings in sensitive spots. "That's all you want right now?" "Yeah." Bella sighs with what sounds like regret. "Don't promise me anything." "I don't want to promise you nothing, either." She turns her head to look at me. "I do like you. I'm just not good at this stuff." I tighten my fingers around her side. "We'll go slow, if that's what you want." "What I want and what I can stand aren't always the same thing." I have no idea what she means by that, and I have a feeling she wouldn't explain even if I asked. "So...seeing each other?" "Agreed." I lean over to kiss her and Bella willingly dips her head to the side, giving me easier access to her mouth. It feels good to know that she enjoys kissing me. She even wraps an arm around my side, mirroring the way I hold her. I move in to deepen the kiss and she pulls away. "Too much." "Sorry." "Not your fault." She gives me another peck on the lips and then rolls away to sit up. "I should go." "Are you sure?" "Yeah." She straightens her shirt around her torso and picks up her bag. I get out of bed to walk her to the door and she grimaces like she finds this painful. "You're not running away, are you?" "Only a little," she says quietly. Bella reaches for the doorknob and I grab her arm. "Stay." "It's almost nine. It's a school night." "You're rationalizing." "And it's working." I fold her into a hug and she sighs softly. She won't give up on leaving, but that doesn't mean I'm going to let her go without a proper goodbye. "I'll walk you out." Alice yells, "Bye Bella!" as we cross the front room. Mom calls out a similar farewell from the kitchen. "I'll see you at school tomorrow." I open the door for her as she shrugs into her jacket. "Yeah, school." Bella grabs me by the front of my shirt as she steps through the door and tows me out with her. The door is barely closed behind us before she pushes me up against the wall and kisses me. And it is an entirely different kind of kiss from the one she pulled away from upstairs ­ it's rough and deep enough to drown in. Her hands are everywhere, grabbing at my sides and shoulders like she can't get close enough. I understand the feeling perfectly, and pull her just as close. God, she feels good. Bella pulls away just a suddenly as she jumped me. "I'm sorry," she breathes. 212

"For what?" I would be embarrassed by my own breathless state, but I can't find the will to care just now. Bella wipes her lips on the back of her hand. "That I'm so fucked up." She turns around and dashes down the front steps. I watch her drive away while I collect my breath. She waves from the end of the driveway. Holy fuck. You are one lucky bastard. I turn to go back inside with a smile on my face. I open the front door and a flashbulb promptly blinds me. "Ha!" Alice cheers, and pulls the Polaroid out of the dispenser. "Your face was perfect." "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Alice makes kissy noises at me and fans herself with the Polaroid. God damn it. Alice turns on her heel and skips down the hall toward the kitchen. "Mom! Guess what Edward just did!" Fuck no. I race after her and clamp a hand over her big fat mouth. My other arm locks around her waist, holding her while she struggles. "What?" Mom asks. "Nothing!" She comes to the kitchen door to investigate the scuffling sounds and finds me holding Alice hostage. Great. I hardly look innocent now. "What's going on?" Alice tries to say, 'He kissed Bella,' but the words are unintelligible from behind my hand. "Let her go, Edward." No sooner have I released her than the words explode from Alice's mouth. "When?" "On the porch, just now." "With Bella?" "That's what I said." "I can hear you, you know," I snap at them. Mom and Alice both look up like they're surprised to find me here. "I didn't know you were dating," Mom says. A smile slowly creeps onto her face. She likes Bella, and she likes to see her kids happy. "We're not. It's complicated." "These things have a way of working themselves out." She pats my cheek. "You deserve to be happy. Fate owes you that." Alice smugly inspects her newly developed Polaroid. I try to snatch it from her and she shoves it down her bra. God damn it.

Tuesday

I pack up my homework and a magazine for the long wait at the clinic. Part of me wishes that Bella were volunteering tonight, so there would be a chance that we'd run into each other. Or better yet, that she would choose to visit and keep me company during the session. I wonder what she's doing tonight... Alice flings my door open without knocking and says, "Does this top work with these shoes?" Ugh, 213

why couldn't she have picked Emmett instead of me to single out for treatment as her pseudo-sister? "I don't know. They're both...nice?" "I'll wear my purple sweater instead." She turns to go and I call her back. "Where are you going?" "To the movies with some friends." Her answer makes me suspicious. Why didn't she just say Charlotte and the other kids she sits at lunch with? "Who?" "Jasper and Maria and one of their friends." "Like a double date?" "No, their friend is a girl." "You're sure he doesn't still think you're a lesbian, right?" Alice rolls her eyes at me. "You should quit chasing him, Al," I tell her seriously. "You know it's not a good situation ­ dating someone else and leaving Forks in a few months for college. You're setting yourself up for pain." "I'm not 'chasing him' anymore," Alice says lightly. "We're friends. That's it." "And you're okay with that?" She smiles and nods. "Yeah. A lot can happen away at college." She winks. Damn it. She isn't 'just friends' with him, she's biding her time. "I think you're going to be stuck standing around waiting until he's married to this chick with the 2.5 kids and the picket fence." "A lot can happen in a few years ­ to both of us." I hate it when her bad ideas are logically sound. "Be careful." "I will." She drums a quick beat on my doorframe and spins away with a little hop. "Besides, you know how good I am at bouncing back." That she is. Quite unfortunately ­ it gives her zero motivation to stop dropping her own heart off high buildings onto beds of spikes. The day will come, though, when she falls too hard to bounce. I dread that pain for her. I'm already in bed when Alice gets home from the movies, but she comes into my room anyway. She crawls across the bed to wake me up and asks if I want to know how her night went. "No, I don't want to know how cute his smile is, or some shit. Let me sleep." "I want to tell you something," she whispers. "It's a secret." "If you fucked up don't expect me to cover for you." "Oh hush." Alice leans down to whisper in my ear, and waves me close when I don't immediately give her my ear. I comply with a sigh and a roll of my eyes. Alice cups her hand around my ear and leans in. She licks her finger and sticks it in my ear. "Gotcha!" She takes off running. "Fuck, Al!" She laughs down the hall and slams her bedroom door. Fucking hell. I flop back down to my pillow and try to content myself with the knowledge that I'll only have to wait eight hours to get revenge on her. Tomorrow morning, all the coffee in the house will mysteriously go missing. Suck on that, bitch.

Wednesday

I go out onto the porch to wait for Bella after school. It's a gorgeous day out. The sun is shining and it's so warm that I probably won't need my jacket the whole time we're out. Slung over my shoulder is a 214

messenger bag full of Bella's suggestions: two Jell-O cups, a spoon, and enough medication to tide me over for at least six hours. When she told me that last one I was excited that she wanted so much time with me today. Bella's truck rumbles up the driveway at three-thirty sharp. She's got the windows rolled down and a smile on her face. "Is it as good as Phoenix?" I ask her as I climb into the passenger seat. Bella leans out her window and pretends to consider the sun. "I can't believe this is even the same planet." She waves to Mom in the front window and backs out of the driveway. "So where are we going?" "It's a surprise." Bella is in her scruffy weekend outfit, so we're probably not going out in public. She told me to wear old clothes and beat up shoes, too. I look back into the truck bed and see an overstuffed backpack. Bella sighs and adjusts her sunglasses on her nose. "Days like this, I miss my other wheels. I had to leave Kyla in Phoenix to move here." "You named your car Kyla?" "So? I bet you've named your dick," she says lightly. "And Kyla's a bike." I snort. "I guess this rusty old tank is a step up from peddle-power in the Phoenix heat." "A motorbike. It's suicide to exert yourself in summer heat like that." I try to picture Bella on a motorbike. It looks something like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. "So what, you had some cute little moped?" "No," she says with sarcasm and disgust. "She's a red Harley Davidson Xr1200 Sportster. Bought her off my neighbor before I even had my license." "That's an eleven thousand dollar bike." "I got it for seven with the money my grandma willed to me. The owner was in a hurry to sell, so I got a good deal." "And your mom just let you blow seven grand on a motorcycle?" Most parents have better priorities - like college funds and not getting smeared across the highway. "You don't know my mom." Bella smiles. "I think she might have just been glad that I was showing interest in something after everything with Grandma." I try to picture Bella on a proper motorcycle, cruising down the highway with her hair a mess behind her. I mean, come on, how many seventeen-year-old girls drive motorcycles as their primary means of transportation? I imagine her pulling into the school parking lot every day; guys were probably drooling over her bike, if not her. "You know, you're kind of a badass," I tell her. Who would have thought it of the unassuming, quiet girl who moved here a few months ago? Bella scoffs. "Please, if I had balls they'd be bigger than yours." Bella turns off the 101 onto a dirt logging road. We creep along that for a while until the road abruptly ends, and for some reason Bella decides that this would be a good time to shift into park and get out of the truck. "Did you take the wrong road?" "No." She stands on the back tire and hefts her backpack out of the truck bed. "We're going to hike a ways. I've got water, and I assume you brought your Jell-O." "Yeah, but..." "We won't walk far." She squeezes my elbow. "And we've got all afternoon. We can go as slow as you want." 215

Our timing is perfect ­ sort of. By four it's still warm enough that the worst of the bugs have retreated, and Bella and I pass through the woods relatively unmolested. Within ten minutes of hiking I take my jacket off and tie it around my waist. I hesitate to do it, but eventually I push my long sleeves up too. Bella has already seen and touched my arms. She knows what they look like. Bella calls a break after half an hour and fishes two water bottles out of her backpack. "Are you doing okay?" she asks as I sip. Her fingers wrap gently around my free wrist. I would think she was just being nice and maybe even a little flirty to touch me like that, but I know it's really a subtle way of feeling my pulse. I lift my hand and rest two fingers against her neck. "I'm fine." Her heart is racing. But she's not even winded. What -? Bella smirks and takes my hand off her neck. She doesn't let go, though. She keeps a loose hold on my fingers and starts walking again. I adjust my hand to hold hers properly. Bella measures our trek in half-hours, though that's no way to track distance. The longer we go, the slower my pace becomes. It's hot and I wish I hadn't worn a black wool hat ­ or better yet, that I didn't need one. Bella notices that I'm struggling and puts an arm around my back, lending me her shoulder. I would be embarrassed if this wasn't a great opportunity to put my arm around her. I indulge my imagination in the idea of the two of us as a real couple, out for a leisurely hike...and getting touchy. Variations of this scenario occupied my thoughts before Bella picked me up today. I even patched my central line up in case things got...interesting. Bella steers us over to a fallen log and makes me sit down. "Is it the heat?" she says. She crouches in front of me and opens her backpack to dig for more water. "Among other things." "Anything I can do?" "Just give me a few minutes." Bella asks if I have an undershirt beneath my tee. I tell her I'm not going to take my shirt off. "Well the wool hat can't be helping. Leave it off for a while." "No." "It's not like -" "No." Bella swallows whatever she was about to say. "Walk behind me," she suggests quietly. "I won't look." "Please stop." Bella sits back on her bottom and hangs her forearms over bent knees. "Okay. Your call." We stay by the log for nearly fifteen minutes ­ long enough for me to eat a Jell-O cup to keep my sugars up. Bella quietly sips at her water bottle, saying nothing. I take one of the hands that hangs over her knee, and she doesn't pull away. "How far are we from where we're going?" "Not far now. Maybe another twenty minutes at our slowest pace." I wonder if she knows how much it means that she said "our" slowest pace, not mine. "That far?" "Don't quit on me now, Cullen," she teases. "I won't." I squeeze her hand and she actually smiles. I didn't know she had it in her to be this welcoming. This...happy. 216

I lean in to kiss her and she pulls away slightly. I'm left hanging there, bent over and lips parted for a kiss that isn't coming. "I'm doing the best I can," she says. At least her tone is apologetic. I still feel like an idiot. I sit back up and clear my throat. "Sorry. I should have, uh..." "Kept walking? Yeah, good idea." She stands abruptly and shoulders her backpack. So much for that. But she still lets me hold her hand. "Almost there." Bella points out the increase of light through the trees. Somewhere in the distance I can hear a creek. "Where are we going?" "You'll see." The trees break off suddenly, opening into a wide, circular meadow. It's sudden appearance surprises me, and Bella's hand slips from mine as she continues walking. "I found this on one of my dad's hunting maps. There was a fire here a few years ago - that's why all the trees are gone. The grass and wildflowers are starting to reclaim it, though." I look around at the gap in the trees, at the tall grass and flower buds risen from the ashes. It's beautiful, but I can't shake the thought that this place is one giant scar. Bella stops and turns to me with a curious expression. "You coming? I brought us a little picnic." It's amazing how much Bella managed to fit in her backpack. An old bed sheet is our picnic blanket. To drink she brought two bottles of orange and mint iced tea, and the "food" fits in three thermoses. Bella laughs at my enthusiasm as I open each one and smell the contents. One is vegetable soup, the second is the sweet milkshake she left in my fridge on Alice's birthday, and the third smells like raspberries. "Appetizer, entrée and dessert," she says proudly. "This is great. So what are you eating?" Bella punches my shoulder. "You're going to learn to share." I shake my head and reach for a spoon. "No way. I flunked that shit in preschool and it's too late to learn now." Bella takes the cup lids from each thermos and pours one-third helpings out for herself. I can't eat as much as she's left me in the thermoses. I tell her that and she tells me to just shut up and eat. The soups and shakes aren't a smooth puree. Bella left chunks in these ­ she trusts me to handle solids now. We eat slowly, languidly, talking about school and family and shit TV. She's easily amused by stories about Alice and Emmett. Siblings are sort of a novelty to her as an only child. I tell her about the time Emmett hit a baseball through the side window. He came inside with a cover story all worked up: "Mom! Edward broke the window!" But he failed to account for the fact that I had already run to Mom with a bloody nose from a sudden encounter with that same baseball on the wrong side of the window. Bella laughs. "Did your mom give him shit?" "Heaps. He didn't see daylight for a month." Then I tell her about the time Alice crawled into the dishwasher as a toddler, just to explore, and the spring-lock door shut behind her. We didn't find her for two whole hours. "Was she scared?" "She didn't want to come out when we did find her." Then there was the time Alice played hairdresser with Dad when he fell asleep watching TV. And the time Emmett and I found a dead possum in the backyard and carried it inside, swinging it around by the tail. 217

"I once gave a cat a haircut," Bella volunteers. "Was your mom mad?" She smirks. "It wasn't our cat." She tells me the story as she packs up the empty thermoses ­ how she lured the cat onto her lap with leftover bacon bits and proceeded to cut big patches of hair off its back with her mom's pruning sheers. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was only five." Bella packs the empty thermoses away and zips up her backpack. I don't want to leave yet. I lie back on the blanket and fold my hands behind my head. "This would be a great spot to stargaze." "You're into that?" Actually I think it's dorky and cheesy, but it also has the potential to be a romantic activity. I tug gently on Bella's shirtsleeve to get her to lie down next to me. "We should come here at night sometime." "Maybe this summer." I can hear the real meaning underneath the words: When you're well enough to do it. "Prom night." That sounded much more complete and eloquent in my head, I swear. "What?" "We said we'd make plans on prom night to get you out of having to go with that fucktard. Let's come here." "Thanks." "Sure." "No, I mean, thanks for not trying to talk me into going to prom with you instead, since we're... seeing each other, now." I've never been one for school dances or formal occasions in general. I wouldn't want to attend prom. But if Bella did, I'm sure I could find the enthusiasm to go with her. Bella looks over at me and sits up on her elbow. "You have a beetle on your hat." She pinches it between her thumb and forefinger and lifts it away. Its little legs flail in the air until she sets it down beyond the edge of the blanket. Cool - a girl who isn't totally freaked out by bugs. Bella brushes the spot on my hat, dislodging a few blades of grass from the black wool. She smirks. "You know, before I knew your real hair color I pictured you with black hair, like Alice and Emmett." It's both pleasing and disheartening to know that she pictured me as being healthy. Pleasing because I'm flattered she cares so much; disheartening because the mental picture is probably a lot nicer than the reality of how I look. I shake my head. "No. I got all the recessive genes. Emmett used to tell people that I was adopted." "It must have been hard on your parents when you were born a ginger," she teases me levelly. "But at least they had Emmett - one normal child." She laughs and I tell her that Emmett can hardly be considered normal. "He's obnoxious at best." "And what are you?" "Charming?" I roll onto my side and put an arm over her waist. "Interesting? Witty?" "You're an idiot." Bella rolls over too ­ away from me. For a moment I think she's turning cold, but then she takes my wrist and adjusts my arm around her waist. She scoots back until we're practically spooning. I've gotta say, snuggling in a meadow feels damn good. It absolutely tickles me to think of all the guys who only wish they could do this with her. "Do you think you'll ever want to make it official?" 218

"Make what official?" "You know, do the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing with me." "I've never had an exclusive boyfriend," she muses aloud. I don't know whose benefit she's saying that for. I fiddle with one of the buttons on her shirt. "I wouldn't be enough for you?" She deserves someone who doesn't exist in pieces. I wouldn't be anyone's first pick - least of all hers. She can do better than me and she knows it. "I didn't say that. I just said exclusivity would be a new thing for me." "Is there someone else?" "I dunno." "If I wasn't sick...?" "Don't." Bella rolls over slowly and sits up on her elbow, studying me. "I care a lot less about the fact that you had cancer than you probably think." "You should care -" Bella lays her finger over my lips, cutting me off. "Don't project your self-loathing onto me. I wouldn't have called you beautiful if I didn't mean it." I take her hand away from my mouth. "This isn't some...I dunno, fetish, is it? You're always saying how beautiful your grandma was bald. Are you just, like...into cancer patients or something?" Bella smirks. She gives a short, unintentional snort, which breaks into a full-blown laugh. I feel ridiculous. "I'm into you," she says. "But you're not just a cancer patient. And no, it's not a bald fetish. Empowered people are beautiful." "I'm not empowered." I'm fucking pathetic. "You're stronger than I'll ever be." Bella leans forward on her elbow and kisses me softly. When she starts to pull away I lean in for more. Bella puts a hand on my collarbone to keep me back. "But I still intend to kill you." I roll my eyes. "Enough with that, okay?" "Nope." "Well then get on with it so I can kiss you again." Bella has a little chuckle at that. "I am killing you," she announces with a kind smile. "You're bleeding to death and you don't even realize it." I can't tell if she's joking or speaking in metaphors or just fucking delusional, but her words take me back to a cold, frightening place. I really did come close to bleeding to death ­ twice. "That's not funny." "Wasn't meant to be." Bella's hand leaves my collarbone to stroke my cheek. "Where did you go just now? You looked...scared." "Nowhere." "Whatever." "Tell me what you meant by that." "Tell me what kind of cancer you had," she returns. It's a guaranteed stalemate of things neither of us wants to tell. "I told you it doesn't matter. I don't have it any more." "It could still kill you faster than I ever could." I move her hand away from me. "You're a little fucked up, you know." Who says shit like that to someone so lately in remission? "Yes." Bella stands up and shakes her limbs out, dislodging stray blades of grass. "You want to know how fucked up?" she says as she stretches her arms over her head. "Probably not." 219

She chuckles darkly. "Trust's a scary thing like that. Not to have it and want it drives you crazy. To have it and not want it will cost you." I'm not entirely sure I understand what she means. I sit up on my elbows and study her face. She looks so relaxed. Happy, even. "Do you trust me?" she asks. "Maybe." "I know you want me to trust you. The surprises. All this give-and-take philosophy. The one-on-one time at lunch, and making me talk to you when I get my head all caught up in thinking." She shakes her head and smiles. "You sure you want all that? I've got weighty baggage." "I do too." "But you don't trust me with it." Bella crouches down to be eye-level with me again. She grabs me by the side of the neck and holds my head against hers, cheek-to-cheek and temple-to-temple. I put my hand around the side of her neck and hold her just as close. "What's your deepest, darkest secret?" she whispers. That I prayed for Alice to die. I can't tell Bella that. I can't tell anyone that. But I know the secret she really wants to hear - the one she's been asking about for months. I angle my head just slightly to whisper directly into her ear. "Acute myeloid leukemia." "Damn," she says lowly. "That was my second guess." The fact that she had a list is annoying as all fuck. Her turn to put herself out there. "What's your secret?" Bella presses her lips against the spot in front of my ear. "I killed my grandmother."

220

16. April 24 to 28

Wednesday

I pull back from our mutual headlock to find him wide-eyed and confused. "Don't tell me you thought you were the only one who had dark shit hidden away?" "You mean you...?" He leaves he question hanging and cocks his head, gaping at me. Then he starts to pull away. "You helped her OD?" "No. She bled out. I told you that." "Did you cause it?" I wonder if he can hear how loud his voice is. Edward stands up and walks around aimlessly, rubbing the back of his neck. "No. She just had a bleed in her lung, plain and simple." "I don't understand." "She was at hospice, and the bleed affected her breathing and blood pressure, so her monitors started beeping. I turned off the first alarm. None of the nurses came to check out ­ they thought it was an artifact alarm. Those were common, toward the end. She had inflammation around her brain, so she would get confused and thrash. It would fuck with the nodes on the monitor and set the alarm off." Edward stops pacing and looks at me. I can tell by his face that he knows exactly what I'm talking about. "But it was going to go off again because she was still bleeding..." His face is going red. He's going to snap on me if I say too much, I know it. "There was blood in her breathing tube, and it was coming out the side of her mouth. I shut off her heart monitor, and then I pulled the plug on her ventilator." "Did she die quickly?" Edward asks. His voice is stiff and unfeeling. He's mad. "Peacefully? Was she even conscious?" "It was slow and obscene. She drowned." "And then what? You just stood there and watched?" I bet he's thinking of his roommate, the one whose family yanked the power on his ventilator. The one who died alone because no one cared enough to be with him at the end. "I held her till she stopped...till she just stopped." First she struggled, trying to suck a breath through her tracheotomy. She stopped thrashing, but her breath still came in shallow gasps. I had my arms around her, and the blood in her throat sprayed down my front. "My mom was there." "Then why the fuck didn't she stop you?" Edward demands. "She was asleep on the cot. She'd been up with Grandma all night. There wasn't much noise to wake her ­ just the one beep, before I shut off the monitor. And the sucking noise around Grandma's trach..." Edward shakes his head at me. There are no words. He looks so disgusted, and maybe a little afraid. I've seen him upset before, but not like this. He just walks away from me, shaking his head as he goes. I let him walk away ­ he needs to be with his thoughts for a while. He stops to vomit at the edge of the meadow. Jesus Christ, I am such a shit to upset him this bad. I get off the blanket and take a bottle of water to him. "Don't fucking say anything," he tells me. He rinses his mouth and asks me to go back to the blanket. 221

"The story doesn't end there, you know." His look of disgust is back. "What else did you do? Draw a swastika on her forehead?" I want to punch him, even though I know I shouldn't. But I still hit him, because he deserves it. Edward reels a little from the slap and touches his face. "You are an asshole," I tell him slowly. "I accepted all your bullshit and baggage when everyone else just wanted to ignore you. Some fucking friend you are to not even try to do the same for me." "I've bent over backwards to accept your bullshit," he yells back. "But this takes the fucking cake, Swan." "Fuck you." "What do you want me to say?" he demands. "'Great job, you killed a sick, elderly woman. It all makes sense now.' Come on!" "You've got a lot of nerve to think that I expect congratulations for killing her." "Well what do you want?" "I want you to fucking listen! God damn, Cullen, I wasn't always a heartless shrew." He snorts incredulously. Asshole. "I regretted it immediately, alright? If I'd just let the alarm go off a nurse would have come, and they would have made sure she died without pain, or stabilized her so she could die peacefully in her sleep..." I throw my hands up. "That's some heavy shit to deal with when you're fifteen." "I'm sorry for your bad decision," he says condescendingly. He walks away from me again, back to the blanket where he left his jacket. I fold my arms around my front and watch him go. He collects his bag and jacket and heads to the edge of the meadow, back in the general direction from which we came. "Fuck." I rest my hands on my knees and breathe through my nose. I should never have told him. I've never told anyone about this before, so I don't really know how else I could have said it. This still would have pissed him off. I sit down, angry at myself and at him. My self-directed anger is nothing new, but the anger I feel for him is of a different breed. I accepted him and his demons before I knew what they were. And as soon as I share mine, he insults me and walks away. Edward Cullen is an asshole. I go back to the blanket to pack up the picnic, but I can't find the will. I lie there and stare at the sky while the grass whirls around me and the bugs fly past. The birds call not far off. This is a beautiful place, but now I'll always remember it as the place where Edward abandoned me. "Fuck you," I tell the sky. "Fuck him. Fuck fuck fuck. Fuck it all. Ugh." I scrub my hands over my face. It feels good to say that, so I keep doing it. "Fuck him. Fuck him." Whispering it to myself is soothing. It eases my self-loathing to focus my rage at him. "Well fuck you too." I open my eyes to find Edward standing by the blanket, glaring down at me. "What, did you get lost?" His nostrils flare angrily. That's a yes. "I'll walk you back." I get up and stuff the bed sheet and thermoses back into my bag. Edward won't look at me. If that's the way he wants it... "If it makes you feel any better, the whole experience wrecked me." "Why would that make me feel better?" I shrug. "Justice. I didn't get off Scott free." I shoulder my bag and lead the way toward the edge of the meadow. "The nurse came in right after and caught me. I was the only conscious person in the room. I was covered in blood. What do you think happened?" 222

We step into the shadow of trees. Their air is cold and the silence becomes pronounced without the ambiance of wind through the grass. "What happened?" he asks lowly. "The hospital called the cops. I spent a night in lockup." "Your mom bailed you out?" "No. I had to appear before a judge so he could set my bail, but they weren't really sure what to charge me with yet and that affected his ruling. They couldn't detain me for more than twenty-four hours without charging me, but they had enough evidence to conclude that I was a danger to others or myself. That's enough to get you a psych detainment." "A psych detainment?" "They turned me over to a mental hospital without setting bail." "They can do that?" "Yeah. The DA jumped on the case. He thought I was some fucked up Kevorkian wannabe. I was in that hospital for three weeks while they tested me to see if I was insane. I didn't plan to kill Grandma, so they couldn't charge me with first-degree murder. They almost made second-degree stick, but that charge fell apart because it wasn't clear that she wouldn't have died anyway with her ventilator plugged in. Temporary insanity was the next one, because they could charge me with manslaughter if my altered mental state precipitated mitigating circumstances, but in the end I was just branded a Wayward Minor. The judge made me get all this therapy and shit." "Good." "I missed her funeral because I was in a mental hospital." "You think she would have wanted you there?" he says sourly. How good of him to consider that this isn't easy for me to talk about. "No. No, I don't. She'd be disappointed in me. She didn't believe in suicide ­ euthanasia would have been an even worse sin to her." Edward doesn't say anything. "I know you don't care anymore, but those three weeks in the psych ward were where a lot of my issues began." "Uh, I think they began before that," he says dryly. "That's how you landed in a psych ward in the first place." "What the fuck do you know?" "This is why Social Services wouldn't let your Mom leave you home alone for long, isn't it?" "Congratu-fuckin'-lations, Sherlock." Edward snorts derisively and looks the other way. "Do you have any more water?" he asks moodily. "Not for you." If he's done being my friend I don't owe him any more favors. "Seriously, I need to take my meds." "I'm not helping you deal with your baggage while you make me feel like shit for owning up to mine. You can swallow 'em dry for all I care." Edward grabs my arm and makes me stop. He glares at me and reaches into his messenger bag, pulling out bottles of pills. He shoves these into my hands and pulls out more. There are nine bottles in all. I don't recognize the drugs on half the labels. I'm guessing those are transplant-related. "And I'm just gonna dump my baggage on you all at once whether you like it or not," he snaps. "There. You want to help me sort through dosages? Listen to every fucking thing about what each drug does to me?" I take a deep breath through my nose and try to respond civilly. "I get it. I'll shut up. Forget I ever trusted you." I dump the pills against his chest. He catches some and others drop to the ground. 223

"Bella!" he calls after me as I march away. I don't stop. He frantically packs up his bottles and jogs after me. The short distance is enough to wind him. "Please, just let me take a bottle." He grabs my backpack and I throw him off. "No. You don't treat me like that and then ask me for favors." "Please." "Why should I?" "Because," he yells, out of patience, "it fucking hurts!" That brings me up short. I stop and study him. Underneath his frustration and anger there is a definite look of pain. I was so upset with him I didn't notice it. "All the walking, the stress...it adds up," he says. "I need to take -" I swing my backpack off my shoulders before he can finish and take out the only bottle of fluid left. It's just a few swallows of orange mint tea; not enough to take nine bottles worth of pills with, but enough to take his Oxy. "We'll stop for more water at the gas station along the highway, and you can take the rest," I tell him. "Don't do me any favors," he says bitterly, and throws back three pills on one swallow to save fluid. He makes a face as they get stuck at the back of his throat and wastes more tea trying to get them down. "Plug your nose," I say tiredly. "It makes the pills go down with less water." Edward gives me that snarky look again. "Did you learn that taking sedatives from a Dixie cup in the nuthouse?" "Yeah, actually, I did. I also learned how to hide a razorblade under my tongue. Want me to show you that, too?" Edward's eyes go wide and I snatch the empty bottle back from him. I walk away and it takes him a second to come to his senses and follow. "Why didn't Social Services send you to Forks in the first place?" he asks. "Your dad's a cop. Wouldn't he be the better parent to live with if they're worried about you being dangerous?" "Because my mom has had primary custody since the beginning, and my mandated treatment was in Arizona. The state wasn't going to tell me to move. My family decided that. Moving here was sort of a last-ditch effort. If I couldn't make it work here my parents were going to come down hard on me." "What does that mean?" I shrug. He just bitched me out for giving him too many details. I'm not going to do it again and piss him off so bad he pukes. "What does that mean?" he asks again, firmer this time. "Are you sure you want to know?" "Just tell me." "I got into some shit after Grandma died. Everyone at school shunned me, so I started hanging out with the bad influences from group therapy. Things went downhill from there. My mom liked the idea of a reform school. But as you pointed out, my dad's a cop; he knows reform schools are full of fuck ups and criminals. I'd just learn new tricks and more bad habits there. He wanted to ship me off to military school." "So you could learn to be even colder?" I'm cold for a reason, damn it. It's not easy to live with this shit. "Given the choice, I'd take the reform school. I've spent enough time around junkies and thieves to know how to fuck with their heads. It's always the same game with them." "You're talking about the kids from group therapy?" "Nah, they're just garden-variety fuck ups. Kids with daddy issues and anger management 224

problems. I meant the people I met in the psych ward while they were testing me." I can't help but smile grimly at the memory, even though I never undertook to talk to any of these people again. "I was only there three weeks, but I had this little clique," I tell him. "You've got to group together in there, or you go really fucking nuts. It was four of us ­ Riley the schizo, Bree the OCD, one user, and me." "Quite the prison gang," Edward remarks drolly. "I beat the shit out of the user," I tell him. "That's sort of how we met. She called me Kevorkian and I smashed my lunch tray down on her head." "Jesus, Bella." "Yeah, that didn't exactly bode well for my sanity plea." "How far did that set you back?" "Three days in solitary and a prescription for Ambien. You think marijuana is a gateway drug? No fucking Ambien. But when I was allowed back into the common area her and me became friends. Sort of. There's only so much they can do as friends. Junkies will do and say anything if they think they can score from it." "You sold her your Ambien, didn't you?" "Victoria was only pleasant when she was docile, yes." I look over at Edward to find him shaking his head. It's bad enough that I have to deal with Mom and Dad's disappointment without Edward heaping his onto the pile too. "She was there to detox, but she'd take anything. I'd slip her my Zoloft when I could, too. That shit's hard on the gut." "Are you still on antidepressants?" "No. Those didn't work out so hot." I don't elaborate and Edward prompts me to continue. "Well it was Zoloft when I was in the psych ward, but that made me a little...intense." "Did you hit multiple people with lunch trays?" "No, but I had these paranoid spells where I'd get all worked up and angry. So they put me on Lithium, but that made me hallucinate. I left the hospital with a prescription for Prozac. It killed my appetite and I dropped fifteen pounds, so they switched me to Cymbalta. That drug worked for shit, so Elavil came next." I look over at Edward. He's frowning thoughtfully at my list of drugs. "Remember how I said I threw a brick through the kitchen window?" "Yeah..." "I wasn't entirely honest. It wasn't my mom's kitchen window. It was the kitchen window in the fifth-floor apartment of an abandoned walkup. I broke it because the frame was stuck and the window wouldn't open. I was going to jump." He murmurs, "Jesus, Bella." "I didn't do it. Clearly." "The meds made you suicidal?" "That's what I told the doctors. They took me right off the meds. I did okay after that and they never put me back on." "What do you mean 'that's what you told them?'" Edward demands. "What really happened?" "I felt like shit. My Grandma was dead and I'd killed her; everyone at school thought I was a fucking psychopath; and my only human contact was with a mother who could hardly stand to look at me, with the losers in Group. Eternal silence seemed like a good decision at the time, even if suicide is a sin ­ which I'm not entirely convinced of, by the way." "So why'd you stop?" Edward asks quietly. "Why didn't you jump?" I kick a rock off the path. "Because I still cared what my grandma thought of me at that point, even though she was dead. And five stories is a long drop. I got cold feet. That's why I wanted to try cliff diving ­ I wanted to jump and make it a good thing instead of a destructive action." 225

Edward makes a knowing little hum. I nudge him with my shoulder to get him to look at me. "That's how I knew you'd never come to an attempt; I've been there. I know what the edge looks like and it leaves a stain on a person." "Swan?" Edward says softly. "What?" When he speaks again his voice is quiet and bitter, not kind like I expected. "That's a really stupid reason to want to kill yourself. You have no idea what real suffering feels like." And that's how the last living shred of my heart dies. T.S. Eliot knew his shit. I drop Edward back at his house, but when I stop the car he doesn't get out immediately. He just sits there for a few seconds with this deeply thoughtful look on his face, and then it suddenly occurs to him that the car is no longer moving. "I'll see you tomorrow." "Yeah." He says it in a distant way, like he didn't really listen to what I said. "Have a good night." Edward gets out of the truck without looking at me and slams the door behind him. That's what goodbye feels like. I'd almost forgotten what it sounds like.

Thursday

I don't see Edward when I get to school, which is weird because he usually gets here before I do and hangs around my locker. But what else could I expect? I see him at lunch when he comes into the cafeteria, and try to smile at him. He looks the other way and goes to sit with Alice and her friends. Fuck. Eric pulls my attention back to my surroundings by offering me a coupon for a one-month subscription to World of Warcraft. "I thought you were into Dungeons and Dragons?" "We only meet once a week for D&D," he says. "WoW fills in the rest of the week. You should join. We need reliable people for raids and--" Please shoot me now. Biology is no better. Edward drops the lab equipment in front of me instead of passing it properly and is incapable of discussing our assignment without sarcasm. "Stop being such a moody little bitch," I tell him lowly. "If you have something to say to me, just say it." "What is there to say?" He turns back to the microscope with a disgusted sneer. "I hate you." "I don't care." I sit in the driveway with my truck shut off, not quite sure of how I got home. That's a bad sign. I haven't had walking blackouts since I was cycling off Lithium. Maybe I should take the bus to school tomorrow... I get out of my truck and very deliberately walk to the front door, trying hard to keep track of everything around me. Charlie isn't home yet, and the last thing I want right now is solitude. Even sitting next to him on the couch, watching TV and saying nothing, would be better than being alone. It fucking sucks that the first person I've ever trusted with the whole story just crapped out on me. I knew he would probably hate me for it, but it's Edward. I thought he'd have his tantrum and then demand we work things out, like he always does. But no. I'm too fucked up for the kid with cancer and 226

no friends in sight. I wonder if he'll tell anybody, and if they'll believe him if he does. I never told any of my schoolmates in Phoenix the whole story, or those fucks in Group or even my shrinks. I thought Edward would get it because he is equally fucked up, albeit in a different way. What a letdown. I'm staring at the fridge, trying to figure out what to make for dinner without actually thinking, when the phone rings. Maybe it's him. I snatch the handset off the wall. "Hello?" "You sound excited," Jake says, and chuckles warmly. "What's going on?" "Nothing. Just making dinner." "Come here after," he says. "We haven't hung out all week." "You know what?" "What?" "That sounds pretty freaking fantastic. I've had a shit week." I don't even bother to eat before I go over to the Black house. Jake is waiting on the porch for me when I get there. He picks me up in a hug and asks what would make me feel better. "A distraction. Anything." "It's low tide," he offers. He doesn't have to say anything else to sell me on the idea. I enjoy these tranquil places out in the wilderness. I'll probably never go back to the meadow now, but the inlet is still an uncorrupted spot. The tide is coming in by the time Jake and I get there. The water is up to our knees and the rounded stones are slippery. We stand in the inlet with our pant legs rolled up, holding onto each other's forearms and trying to keep upright with each wave that rolls over our knees. Our bare soles slide over the rocks and we get salt all on our clothes, but I haven't laughed so much over something so simple since I was a little kid. The worries of the day slip away and I'm lightened by easy pleasures and good company. When the water rises too high we go to the edge of the inlet to sit on the rocks. Jake puts his hands on my waist and boosts me up. "You're like a little doll," he says. "You weigh next to nothing." When he climbs up next to me he kisses my temple. "What was so hard this week?" Jake touches my hair, combing his fingers through it. I consider telling him what really happened, but I couldn't do that without telling him about my grandma. I don't think I ever will tell him that particular part of my history. That would complicate things, and Jake is a very simple sort of friend. He knows the new Bella ­ the one who isn't a fuckup. "Just...a little drama with a friend." "Girl drama?" Jake guesses. "No, just some shit with my lab partner." That's the only way to describe our relationship now ­ just two students assigned to work together for an hour a day. Jake puts his arm around me for a sideways hug. I lay my head on his shoulder because it feels good, and he kisses my hair. "You've got to stop that shit, you know." "What?" "All this affection. Our dads are gonna start thinking that there's something going on between us." "Would that be so bad?" "Them thinking it? Or something going on?" "The second one." He tries to kiss me and I turn my head so he gets my cheek. "We're friends. That's it. We talked about this." "Is it the age difference? You know that technically we're only a year and a bit apart. It's not much 227

-" "I don't date." "What, never?" He laughs softly like I'm joking. "Isn't it enough to just be my friend?" I can't help sighing. I'll have few friends left if Edward tells people about me. "It is," Jake assures me. He hugs me closer and adds, "For now." "No." I pull away. "There's never gonna be any more." "You say that now, but--" "I say it because I mean it. I'll always mean it. You're like my brother, okay? Just drop it." "You're upset." Jake smoothes my hair. Is he saying that to discredit my refusal? "Let's talk about something else." "I'm gonna go home." I stand up and walk away. "Bella!" Jake calls after me. I don't stop or turn back. I feel alienated from the him, one person who I didn't have to lie to, the one who was happy to take me at face value. I should never have told anybody about Phoenix ­ least of all the person who had the most power to hurt me with it. I've thrown everything out of balance. Jake jogs after me and grabs my arm. "You want to go back to the house? To the beach? What will make you feel better?" I think Jake is the only person left who would actually ask me that question. "Cliff diving." "What?" "I want to jump." "It's not a good idea right now. It's gonna be dark in an hour and the tide is coming in." "Just one jump." Jake gives me a stern look. Does he think he can pull a dad on me? "You know I'll just go on my own if you don't come with me." I need this in a way I can't even explain. Jake looks irritated, but he knows I'm stubborn enough to go with or without him. "Fine. But just one." I step out of my truck, soaked the skin and reeking of salt water, to find Alice on my porch. She sits on the stoop, tapping her hands on her knees. Her bike lies on its side on the front lawn. "What happened to you?" she says when she sees me. "I jumped off a cliff." "Why?" "I think I did it wrong." I reach into my purse for my house key. "I think the whole thing would have gone a lot better if there hadn't been water at the bottom." Alice grabs me by the back of my jacket and makes me face her. She looks so perplexed. "What are you doing here?" I'm starting to shiver and I'm in no mood for company. "I was worried about you. Edward's been more of a jackass than usual. I thought maybe you guys had a fight, but he's not saying anything." "And you care because...?" "Because you're good for him. If you had a fight or whatever, I'm sure it can be resolved." I can't withhold a skeptical snort. "I doubt it." "Try, please," she says in a plying voice. She has no right to ask me that, ignorant as she is of the details. He cut me out, not the other way around. He was the one who insisted that I don't know what real suffering is. "You want to carry some peace-making message to him?" 228

"If it'll help," she agrees. "Okay. Tell him he's an absolute bastard ­ a scrawny, ugly, bald motherfucker who is going to die cold and alone. He'll know what it means." I step inside and slam the front door behind me. It takes a long, hot shower to get rid of the salt and the cold in my bones. I still feel chilled inside, though, and it has nothing to do with my body temperature. There's pizza in the fridge because I didn't cook tonight, but I can't choke down more than a few bites. It's about half-past when my phone buzzes with a new text message. Was it absolutely necessary to make my little sister cry? Tell her to keep her nose out of it, then. It's none of Alice's business what goes on between Edward and I. It's not her responsibility to fight his battles for him, either, or to negotiate peace like we're kindergartners fighting over a toy. I don't hear from anyone until late that night, when I get another text from Edward. I told her about you. The five short words make my blood run cold. I'm done. Life as I know it in Forks is over. I should never have trusted him. You don't deserve friends, I tell him. I drop my pillow over my head and try not to scream. This is how it starts. It might take a day or two, but soon everyone will know. I'll have to explain, and then everyone will shun me ­ if they even let me explain to begin with. The kids in Phoenix didn't give me that opportunity. They took what they saw in the papers as the complete story. It'll be a lonely two months until school is out, and then an even lonelier summer. Senior year will be a quiet one. I'll be the outcast and he'll be back to normal by then ­ he'll have a voice and friends and not a shred of pity for me. I might as well just give up now and move back to Phoenix. He sends me: I can't believe I ever liked you. It's not necessary to tell me what a monster I am. I've been vilified by everyone I know already. I got the message, loud and clear, that I'm a bad person. The fact that I tried to be better by moving to Forks is irrelevant. Ask Banner to assign you a new lab partner tomorrow, I tell him. Don't put yourself through the trouble of having to acknowledge me. I'll do that. And there it is. All alone. Again.

Friday

I don't go to school. I can't take it. I tell Charlie I don't feel well, and he obliges me by calling the school to justify my absence. At first I think he actually believes I'm sick, too, because I spend the day in bed, drifting between sleeping and waking. I have no appetite. The light hurts my head. I can't say for sure where it hurts. In the afternoon Charlie offers to take me to see a doctor, but I'm not fooled. He doesn't mean he'll take me to the family doctor for a checkup and penicillin. He means he'll take me to a shrink to find out if this is an encore performance of clinical depression. "I told you not to hang out with that kid," he says when I refuse. "I warned you, and look what he's done to you. It's just like before -" "I was on fucking Elavil," I say loudly. "It had nothing to do with Grandma or with anything, and this has nothing to do with Edward." 229

"Don't take that tone with me. Billy said you told Jake you'd had a bad week ­ normal people don't get so blue they can't eat after a bad week." He doesn't know the kind of bad week I've had. Two days and I actually miss Edward's snark. His negativity took the edge off my misanthropy. "You and Billy gossip like old women," I complain. I throw off my blanket and get out of bed. "There, I'm up. You happy?" "Fine, I'm happy," Charlie retorts. "Do something with your afternoon." "I'm going out." "Oh no you're not." "You just told me to do something." "Around the house! Take it easy for the day." "You don't even know where I'm going." Neither do I, but that's beside the point. I grab a pair of shoes off my floor and my keys off the dresser, and leave the house. Charlie follows me all the way to the front door, arguing with me to stay indoors and take a day to rest. I have no idea where I'm going, unwashed and dressed in sweats. I end up parked on one of the overgrown logging roads, watching the other cars go by. I get out and lay in the truck bed, staring up at the clouds and wishing I could see the sun. I bet it's gorgeous in Phoenix right now. I bet it's so warm that the grass is dying because Mom forgot to set the timer on the sprinklers before going to an away game with Phil. It's almost four ­ the Group session at the community center is just about to start. Dollars to donuts, Laurent is still there and hating every minute of it. I suppose that's something I could do here, if word gets around that I'm a homicidal maniac: find a group therapy resource (it would appease Charlie) and get my human contact from the screwballs there. I would probably have to drive to a larger town like Port Angeles to find a youth group, but beggars can't be choosers. Then I wonder if I really want to get involved with more people like James, and the idea loses its appeal. I get home just after sunset. Charlie grills me about where I've been. He doesn't buy that I've been sitting in my truck on a logging road all day, doing nothing. "You could have sat around and done nothing here," he says. "You didn't have to worry me." "No one asked you to worry." I open the fridge and look for something to eat, even though I'm not hungry. "I'm your dad. It's in the job description." Charlie offers to make me something to eat, but I don't feel like eating burnt food tonight. I just pour myself a bowl of cereal and sit there with a blank look, chewing it slowly. It tastes like sand. As soon as Charlie leaves the kitchen I check the call history on the kitchen phone. He called Mom's cell not a full hour ago. Any day now they're going to gang up on me; I know it. I stare at my computer screen, baffled by the e-card my mother sent me. I suppose I should be feeling some emotion in reaction to the silly picture of a kitten with a cowboy hat telling me to cheer up, but I can't say for sure. Besides, I hate people who put clothes on their pets. The image of the kitten blinks its big blue eyes - probably photoshopped to that shade - and stiffly wags its tail. I think I might vomit. The urgent need to erase the kitten sends me on a purging binge. I delete emails left and right, scrapping all the correspondence (what little there is) from people back home. I haven't gone out of my way to get in touch with anyone from Phoenix since I moved here. A few people sent emails asking 230

where I was - those were the people who I didn't care enough about to say goodbye to before I left Phoenix. I'm in the process of deleting those when I come across the last email I received from James. I didn't say goodbye to him in person, either. I couldn't stand to. I sent him an email after I was already settled in Forks, making it clear that I wasn't coming back to Phoenix or to Group. His reply was short and smarmy, just like him: That's a shame. I'll miss you, Baby Girl. James always was a nervy fucker. It was a real shit thing to call me Baby Girl after two years. You could always tell which of the girls in Group he was fucking at any given time by the condescending nickname he bestowed on us all. I think it was how he kept from calling each of us by the wrong name at an inopportune moment. I never outright told him to fuck off when he said it, but I would always tell him that he wasn't my dad. James would just laugh it off and say 'Thank God.' He didn't mean it in a sexual way, either. He meant that in a, "you're so fucked up I'm glad you're not my kid" kind of way. As I delete the email I say a little prayer to whoever's listening that his brakes fail on a steep hill.

Saturday

Stocking the shelves at Newton's Outfitters makes the morning go by at a reasonable pace. It keeps my hands busy and I'm so focused on getting everything just right that I don't have time to dwell on Edward ­ much. When I'm done restocking I spend two hours cleaning and reorganizing the whole stockroom. "Come out front for a while," Mike says when he sees me moving boxes. I try to decline but he insists. When we get to the counter I find out he just wanted help sorting through credit receipts by date. It's a boring task, but it has the same way of keeping both hands and mind busy, so I do it without complaint. "How come you weren't at school yesterday?" "Food poisoning." He expresses his sympathy and says he's glad I felt well enough to come in today. "Work is pretty boring when you're the only one here." "I'm gonna go roll sleeping bags." I leave the front counter and go to the sleepwear section. Customers are constantly taking the sleeping bags out of their nylon sleeves to look at color and thickness and fabric. Rolling the damn things back up is a bitch, but it has to be done. I bend down to pick up one of the fallen sleeping bags and Mike puts his hand on my back. I jump at the sensation ­ I didn't realize he followed me from the counter. "Easy," he tells me with a smile. "Didn't mean to scare you." His hand is still on my back. "Let me help you with that." Mike goes to take the sleeping bag from me, deliberately touching my hand in the process. "Have you slept with Jess yet?" My question surprises him. "What?" "Have you slept with her yet?" Mike gives me this uneasy look, like he isn't sure if I'm playing a joke on him or not. "All this on-again-off-again, fighting in public, making each other jealous, making out in the hallway...is she so back-and-forth and spiteful because she gave you something she wishes she hadn't?" Mike does one hell of a goldfish impersonation. "That's, uh...private." He hasn't fucked her. Mike smiles awkwardly and lets go of the sleeping bag. 231

"I'll leave you to it." He heads back to the front counter. I almost wish Edward were here just so I could say, See? I don't need pepper spray to get Newton to leave me alone. A sharp tongue does the trick. Mom calls that night under the pretense of catching up with me. I know she just wants to make sure I'm not causing more trouble. She keeps me on the phone for an hour, talking about baseball and travel and the humid Florida weather. Simply chatting with her makes me feel better. She asks me about school and work, and I give her the highlights. Mom surprises me by remembering most of my new friends' names. "What about Edward?" she asks. "You haven't mentioned him yet." I bet she was waiting for me to say something about Edward; to prove whether Charlie was right or wrong about what a bad idea it is for me to hang out with him. "We haven't spoken much this week." "Why not?" My first instinct is to lie, because that's what I always do when uncomfortable questions arise. But this is my Mom. She already knows who I am at my worst. "I told him about Phoenix." Mom is silent for three whole seconds. The tension is simply delicious. "What exactly do you mean by that?" she asks slowly. She sounds like a counsellor trying to talk someone down from their ledge. "I told him about Grandma, and the psych detainment, and the court ordered therapy. And about getting fucked up on antidepressants and planning to kill myself. Not the whole story, exactly. Just up till Christmas." "And why would you do a thing like that?" "I dunno. I trusted him." "You wanted a clean break," she says. "You had one there. You haven't known him that long and you trusted him with damaging information." "I'll handle it." "Bella, you didn't handle it well last time." "This is different." "How?" I take a deep breath through my nose, but it does nothing to help my patience. "Shortage of tall buildings?" "Put your dad on the phone." I hand the phone over to Charlie and disappear to the second floor. I don't want to hear what they have to say about me. As I sit there doing nothing my phone buzzes. Guess who has to make my shit day even worse? Do you still have my Nightdodger CD? You're not getting that back. I'll keep it just to spite him. Bring it to school tomorrow. Make me. I knew it was going to cost me to be his friend. Why shouldn't I get a CD out of the deal? In exchange for two paranoid parents, one dead heart, months of soup, my reputation and my sanity, of course. You're being a child, You're being a prick. From what I can hear of Charlie's half of the phone conversation, he and Mom are getting upset. I 232

turn on my iPod and crank the volume to block them out. The first track is from Spirited. Fucking Shuffle. Charlie hangs up the phone with a slam and I cringe. He's probably going to storm up here next and give me shit. I curl up on my side facing the wall and drop my pillow over my head. It's cowardly, but I can't deal with this shit right now. My door opens without a warning knock and Charlie steps in. "You awake?" he barks at me. "Maybe." "I'm going down to Billy's. I'll be back in an hour." He says the last part with emphasis, like he's warning me not to try anything because he'll be back in time to catch me. "Fine." I don't breathe easy until he's gone. Fuck. Charlie was a hell of a lot easier to live with before I knew Edward.

Sunday

"Dad?" I knock on Charlie's bedroom door. He doesn't answer, so I knock again. When I open his door I find his bed undisturbed. Upon inspection, I find his toothbrush is dry and his toiletries untouched. He didn't come home last night. I'm not exactly worried. Likely he had a beer at Billy's, and then another, and then a few more, and decided to spend the night in La Push. Charlie isn't a heavy drinker, but when he's stressed he's been known to binge a little. He and I have that in common, but I swore I'd kick the habit when I moved here. I suppose I should feel guilty for being the cause of his stress, but apathy is about all I can manage right now. When Charlie does come home he's going to be sore at me and hung over to boot. I decide having hangover-friendly food waiting for him might help my case. It's time for an old stand-by: Grandma's chicken soup. Simple, easy, and comforting. I take a pack of chicken breasts out of the fridge and debone them. The breasts go back in the fridge, and the bones and fillets go into a pot. I take my time preparing the vegetables. Each carrot is cut perfectly to size so it cooks evenly. I cut the onions into large chunks so Charlie can pick those out. While the pot bubbles I heat a skillet of water. I'll add that to the soup as it boils down. Slow reduction makes the flavor stronger. I pour more hot water into the pot and reduce the heat. The pot will need tending to again, but for the most part it just has to sit and boil for four hours. I set an alarm to remind me to add more water later, and go lay down on the couch. I turn the TV on, but that's just for show. Soon I'm more asleep than awake. It's almost eleven when I hear the back door open. Charlie is home. I throw off my blanket and scramble to my feet, eager to make an impression of usefulness. If he catches me lazing around he'll get on my case about depression again. I hurry into the kitchen to offer him a cup of soup. It's not Charlie at the back door. Edward stands there with his hands in his pockets, looking uncomfortable. "I destroyed your CD. You can fuck off now." The corner of his mouth twitches. "That's a shame. I was gonna let you keep it." I suppose it's good that I was lying, then. "Um, can we talk?" 233

"I thought we'd already said it all." I go over to the stove to stir the soup. Edward tells me it smells good, like trite compliments will make me more amenable to conversation. I ignore him, but he steps further into my house and touches the back of my sweater. "You don't look well." "Neither do you." He drops his hand. I've hurt his feelings ­ again. I can't justify why I still care about that. I look over my shoulder at him, with his pursed lips and slanted brows as he struggles to think of the right thing to say. The blood vessels in the corners of his eyes are a little inflamed. How sad is it that I notice such a subtle difference? "You need carrots. And protein. What the hell have you been doing with yourself?" I tiredly reach down a bowl from the cupboard and retrieve a ladle from the drawer. I give Edward a bowl of hot broth with as many carrots as I can scoop out. "You don't have to -" "Eat," I tell him. "I'm not giving it to you to be friendly, so don't waste your time feeling guilty. Just eat it." "I want to talk to you." I hand Edward a spoon. "Talking doesn't work out so hot for us. Just eat." I gesture to the table and offer him a seat. "I said stuff I shouldn't have." "No shit. Let's not beat a dead horse by discussing it, okay?" "I came here to apologize. Some of those things I said...I really didn't mean them." I drop the lid back on the pot with a bang. "Well that's the kicker, isn't it? Which words did you mean?" Edward starts to squirm. "I was mad, okay?" "Don't get defensive. I know you were upset. There's only one thing you said that I really care about anyway." And I thought he was pale already. "You know the one." "Maybe I did mean it," he says quietly. "I'm not sure." I point to the door. "Get out of my house." He doesn't move. "I didn't mean that you haven't suffered," he says quickly. "But...it's different. You haven't lived in fear for your own life. You wouldn't think like that ­ you wouldn't take your life so lightly ­ if you had, I mean...um..." He fiddles with the edge of his pocket. He does that when he's flustered. Bites his nails, too. "Is that what you came over here to say?" "I came to say a lot of things." I point to the table yet again. "Eat first." I turn to head down the hall and Edward calls me back. "Bella?" "I'm just going to get dressed. Eat your fucking soup already." I would be irritated that Edward's presence necessitates changing out of sweats, but I've been wearing these since yesterday so it's a good idea to change, regardless. I just replace my old sweats with new ones and make a passing effort at brushing my hair. When I come back downstairs Edward's bowl is empty. I put on the kettle for mint tea, because if he ate that fast he probably didn't chew properly. Edward still looks hungry - he's eyeing the pot on the stove - so I fill his bowl up again and he smiles shyly. "Thanks. I wasn't sure if I should just take seconds without asking." I toss him a yogurt pop for dessert. It's a simple gesture, but it gives him cause to stop and study 234

me. "Are we okay now?" I swallow. "We're talking again."

235

17. April 24 to 28 II

Wednesday

I march through the front hall, straight upstairs to my room. Mom hears me come home and calls out an offer for warmed up soup. I decline, and the words come out sharper than I intended. I'm still on edge. I'm still pissed off. I still want to take Bella by the shoulders and shake some fucking sense into her. Knowing she'd come so close to throwing her life away over fixable problems makes me so deeply angry I don't even know how to articulate it. Her problems had workable solutions ­ solutions that didn't involve putting her body through hell on a gamble ­ she didn't have to go up to the fifth floor of a building and jump. Unless she was lying, and it really was the meds acting for her. I wouldn't put it past Bella to lie about that; she doesn't like to feel weak or out of control. I end up Googling her list of meds. I almost feel guilty about doing it, but then I think of how she's probably running a search on AML, and decide Fuck it. Looking at the info for her latest drug, Elavil, I wonder if she lied about being med-free, too. Apparently it can cause irritability, hostility, and impulsivity. Sounds like someone I know. I need to get out of here. Maybe 'here' isn't really a place; maybe it's my own fucking head, but I go downstairs and ask to borrow the car anyway. "Where are you going?" I don't fucking know. But I can't tell Mom that. "I want to see if the clinic can take a walk-in. I want to get my treatment over this week." It's a good enough reason for her, so she lets me take the car. I have every intention of trying to find a calming place ­ maybe the beach? ­ or perhaps just a place where I can vent and rage without being heard ­ the beach wouldn't be a bad choice for that, either. But I don't end up along the shore road. I miss the turnoff and end up at the hospital, even though it was supposed to be a cover story. Maybe I should see if the clinic can take a walk-in. But then I think of having to sit still for three hours at a time like this, and I know I wouldn't be able to stand it. I'm circling the lot toward the exit when I spot a car parked in the north corner. It's a lime green Volkswagen beetle ­ it stands out without trying. The sight of it brings nothing but dread. I park the car. The nurse at triage in pediatric oncology is Laura ­ the one with the loud laugh and a son in kindergarten. She smiles when she sees me and even remembers my name, even though I haven't been here in a few months. "I thought I told you not to come back here?" she jokes. "Just visiting." Laura gives me the clipboard to sign in as a visitor and assigns me one of the visitor badges. She asks me who I'm here to see. "Jane." "Room 303." Is it by nostalgia or chance that she's still in the same room? The door of room 303 is ajar when I approach. I poke my head in and smell the stale odors of sanitizer and vomit. She's back for more napalm. "Can I come in?" "Whatever." She's got the curtain drawn around the bed. I step over to her side of it and try not to look surprised that she's much worse than I anticipated. Jane was never a sizable person in the time I knew her. She was already on the ward when I got here, and she left just before I did. Last summer she was small and thin, but now she's absolutely emaciated. Her skin is faintly yellow and her eyes are 236

bloodshot. "Take that off," she says, and reaches a boney arm up to snatch my hat. "It's like wearing a burqa in a strip club." Jane isn't the vain type. She wears her scars with a sense of morbid pride. "What happened to never coming back here?" I pull up the visitor's chair and sit beside her. "I'd be home if I could be." "Same diagnosis?" Last time she graced this ward with her scathing presence, she was being treated for masses in her upper intestine and stomach. Jane starts to shake her head and then thinks better of it. She must be fresh off a treatment. "Stomach's clear. It's just my liver and pancreas that are fucked." She says it so casually. I can feel my face go pale. She's got a double-stamped death warrant. "Are you here for maintenance chemo?" The likelihood of surviving either of those cancers, never mind both, is slim. Chances are she's here to keep the problem from growing too big too fast, thereby buying her a little time. "What are you here for?" "To visit you." "That's sweet." She says it with a wry smile. Jane doesn't do 'sweet.' Her pretty face and short stature belie an acerbic wit and cruel sense of justice. Jane doesn't take anybody's bullshit, a trait that has made her infamous in the pediatric wing. She and I used to hang out with the other teens in the common lounge at the end of the oncology ward. It's a room with couches, tables, a TV and glass walls all around. Through the one wall we could see into the pediatric gastroenterology department, the end of which housed a ward specific to treating kids with eating disorders. I don't know who the shitty hospital planner was that he thought putting the cancer kids and the anorexics together was a good idea, but we were stuck with them. We all hated them, but Jane took it more personally than most. Our lounge shared a corner with theirs. Every fucking day we would see the counselors file in the patients, and they would sit around the table before perfectly measured, nutritionist-designed meals. And they wouldn't eat. They'd sit there as a group and read the ingredients on every fucking item out loud, going through little mantras about how it was good for them to consume X amount of vitamin C and so many grams of carbohydrates, while ten feet away, a dozen or more of us were willing but unable to eat the same things. All they had to do was eat, and they'd live. They didn't need strong drugs and harsh medicines, or surgeries or radiation treatments that burn the skin or whole new organs ­ they just needed to fucking swallow. Jane snapped one day in October when one of the girls burst into tears over a cup of applesauce. Jane was in rough shape at the time, but she still felt it was worth it to haul her wrecked body and IV pole all the way around to the other side of the wing, into the room where lunch was being eaten. We all just stared, too stunned to believe that she'd actually fuck with these people. "No one invited me," she said, playing on her sweet appearance. Jane welcomed herself to a seat and said, "You're not gonna eat that?" She snatched the tray from the crying girl and began to eat, making all kinds of appreciative sounds and remarks about how good it tasted. After that Jane was confined to her room. She set six kids a few months back in treatment and spent the rest of the afternoon throwing up applesauce, but she never apologized. "You gonna come to my funeral?" Jane asks. She says it like she's inviting me to her birthday party. "Sure." "I get discharged in two days if all goes well. I'm going casket shopping." "Are you scared?" She seems so at peace with the fact that she's going to die. Maybe she's known for a while now and has already crawled through the five steps to acceptance. I never could get there, 237

even when the odds were stacked against me. I only got as far as bargaining. "Yeah," Jane admits. "But it's sort of...easy. I don't have to worry about the future. I don't have to stress over picking a college or save for retirement... I'll miss out on a lot of stuff, and sometimes that really pisses me off, but this whole dying thing is sort of liberating." I'm not sure if I should believe her. Jane tends to deadpan a lot, even when she's being ironic or sarcastic, so it's hard to tell. I blurt out, "My friend just told me she tried to commit suicide," and immediately feel like shit for saying it. Jane doesn't need to hear about my issues when she's drowning in her own. "Did she have a good reason?" "No." "Well that's a kick in the teeth." Jane pats my hand. "Try not to hold it against her. Not everyone knows what life is worth." "I'll try." Will I? Or am I agreeing with Jane because I feel guilty that she's dying? Gillian, the redheaded nurse who corks on her break, comes in with an IV bag in her hands. Jane smiles like it's Christmas and Gillian tells her it's the good stuff. She takes an empty bag off the pole and hangs the new one ­ it's morphine. "Can you make it a fast drip?" I hang around the hospital until Jane's medication makes her fall asleep, and then I slip my hat back on and make a quiet exit. The next time I see her, she probably won't be breathing. It takes me ages to fall asleep that night, and when I do I have nightmares. I see Alice, weak and pale and shriveled, like something out of a concentration camp. 'Sorry,' she says, 'It's you or me.' She presses a withered hand to my chest. Her little shove topples me over, back over the edge of a very tall building, and I jolt awake with the sensation of falling. "Fuck..." I get out of bed to splash cold water on my face. I haven't had pulling-the-plug dreams since I last checked out of the hospital. Fuck Bella for disturbing my sleep like that. Fuck her for killing a woman who trusted her for care and support. As I wipe my face I consider the frightening idea that Bella might have been mentally unsound before the shrinks ever got to her. Maybe that's why she decided to go out of her way to make sure Elsie died. Maybe that poor woman was abused in her most vulnerable state, and no one came in time to save her from her insane granddaughter. Of course, even more disturbing is the idea that Bella killed Elsie with an entirely clear head; that she had it in her to be so cruel and cold and calculating, shutting off the alarms in just the right order, powering down the ventilator, and holding a helpless old woman down while she bled to death. Not everyone has it in them to watch a loved one die, never mind do the killing. Bella did both. So what kind of person does that make her? I feel like I didn't even know her before now. All the nice things she did, all the encouragement she gave me, was just cover for the monster underneath. Her blunt way of speaking, her refusal to take anybody's bullshit ­ those are things she probably picked up during her time amongst the rough crowds of the mental hospital and therapy group. That's not the real her; it's who she became when she killed her own grandmother. Who she was before that doesn't really matter. If Bella was ever a nice person, that girl died with Elsie. Before I fall asleep, I consider the third disturbing thought of the night: maybe she really should have jumped.

238

Thursday

My bad night of sleep makes me dozy all through my morning classes. I can hardly stand to keep my head up, much less pay attention. I fully intend to crash in the nurse's office at lunch, after I get something to eat. It's out of habit that I notice where Bella is sitting. She looks up at me and offers a pained sort of smile. I turn away and head for Alice's table. I can't even look at her. "Are you okay?" Alice asks me. A few months ago it wasn't weird for me to give up eating after only half a Jell-O cup, but now my lack of appetite is notable. I can literally feel Bella's eyes boring into the back of my head. It makes my skin crawl. "Will you leave me alone?" I grouch. Alice lets me be ­ after stealing the remainder of my Jell-O. Biology is hell. I can't look at Bella without feeling the intense urge to yell at her, and so I don't. Civility is a challenge. I carelessly pass the slides and microscope to her when I'm done with my own lab form, and she rounds on me. "Stop being such a moody little bitch," she says seriously. "If you have something to say to me, just say it." "What is there to say?" There are no words for how completely repulsed I am by her behavior ­ the parts I can riddle out, anyway. I'm still convinced she's a liar, and I have no interest in talking to her any more. I turn back to my work, away from Bella. "I hate you," she whispers. How very much like her. "I don't care." After dinner Mom and I spend some time cooking. We do four kinds of soup so we can freeze the leftovers and I have food for a week. I try to ignore the fact that the recipes are all written in Bella's slanted, messy penmanship. Emmett keeps coming through the kitchen to steal pieces of chopped vegetables off the cutting boards. Mom and I chat a little about her work, but when it comes time to tell her about how my day went, we hit a stall. She senses that I'm not in much of a talking mood and starts singing lowly. If it weren't for her extensive knowledge of Alison Krauss music, it would be easy to forget that she grew up in the Midwest. "Down in the river to pray..." The side door flies open with such force that it bangs back on its hinges and slams shut. Alice storms in, red-faced and tear-stained. She's sobbing like Dumbledore died all over again "What's wrong, honey?" Alice blows right past Mom to throw her arms around my waist. She clings to me and cries painfully. All attempts to extract information from her are useless; she's crying too hard to speak clearly. Mom and I share perplexed looks over her head. "That boy?" Mom mouths. I shrug. "Did you and Charlotte have a fight, sweetie?" Mom says. She rubs soothing circles across Alice's shoulders. Alice just shakes her head no, she didn't fight with Charlotte, but that's all she can communicate. "Come on." I shift her so she's clinging to me sideways and walk her upstairs with an arm around her shoulders. I take her to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face. Her tears don't really stop, but she's able to catch a breath with her head between her knees and a cool cloth on the back of her neck. "What happened?" Alice pants a little, trying to find her shaky voice. "I w-went to talk to B-Bella--" 239

Oh fucking hell. "I thought maybe you guys had a fight, and"--she interrupts herself to wipe her drippy nose-- "that you'd make up if you just...I dunno, talked?" "Why would you try to interfere?" Alice sniffles. "Because the two of you fight over the stupidest stuff." "What did she say?" Wrong question. Alice's face crumples into a look of anguish and a fresh wave of sobs makes her impossible to understand. Holding her doesn't seem to help. I keep wiping her cheeks with my thumbs, but it's like sandbagging in a monsoon. "What did she say, Al?" Alice shakes her head. "I'm not gonna repeat it." "That bad?" Alice nods and tucks her head under my chin. "Do you want your toy wand?" Dumb little things like that always make her feel better. "Yeah, so I can stab her with it." "What did she say? Tell me." Alice firmly shakes her head. "It was mean. Very mean." I keep trying to badger the story out of her, but she won't budge. Eventually her tears run out of steam and she starts to collect herself. I give her a minute alone in the bathroom to wash up ­ and give myself an opportunity to text Bella. Was it really necessary to make my little sister cry? It's going to take one hell of a reason to keep me from keying her truck tomorrow. Tell her to keep her nose out of it, then. Bitch. She has no right to be mean to Alice; my sister didn't do anything to her. Alice comes out of the bathroom and crawls onto her bed. She sits facing me, crosses her legs, and hugs a pillow to her chest. "What," she says seriously, "did the two of you do to each other?" "Never mind." "I do mind. Nobody says hurtful stuff like that without a good cause. What happened?" "Bella's got...secrets." "We all do. What's that got to do with you?" "She told them to me, that's what." Alice narrows her eyes at me. "And what did you do?" It's a very long story and not at all easy to tell. Alice interrupts frequently, asking questions and making me repeat myself. She wants to know my exact words, my exact inflection, Bella's tone of reply and the details of body language ­ like the conversation was a play and she's dissecting it in drama class. She starts to cry again at the rough parts, and then practically jumps down my throat when I try to stop telling her the story. "Tell me the whole thing, Edward," she says through her teeth. "You'll just get upset." "I'm already upset. Tell me what you said!" Alice's eyes are still red and puffy at the end of the story, but she's no longer crying. She hugs her pillow tighter against her front, looking off into space with a deeply thoughtful expression. "I get it," she says quietly. "I always knew there was something off about her, but I didn't think she was actually insane." "Not that." Alice shakes her head. "I mean why she did it. Everything else ­ the series of bad decisions, I mean ­ started when her grandma died. It's...it's the symptoms, sort of; not the disease." "When she killed her grandma," I correct her. "The difference is subtle, but meaningful." 240

"But I get it," Alice insists. "If it's all the same, if her grandma was going to die anyway, she did it out of love. It was over the first time her grandma coded, and she didn't have to suffer any more. She could have hung around on life support for weeks." "You're missing the point. If she had done the responsible thing and told a nurse, the staff would have made sure her grandma died without pain. She didn't do that. She pulled the plug and let the woman drown in her own blood." Alice leans over to kiss my shoulder. "I would have done it for you," she murmurs. "What?" I push her away so I can read her face. She's being completely serious. "If you were going to die I wouldn't want the doctors to load you up with morphine. It would confuse you and you wouldn't be able to say goodbye." Her lower lip trembles. "If you hung on, even if it meant dying in pain, and I could be with you and you knew who I was ­ well, I think that's a better way to go." Her voice cracks a little on the end. "It's not cruelty ­ that's love." "If you love someone you don't make their last moments absolute hell," I argue quietly. I can't believe we're having this conversation. I've gone out of my way for months not to talk to Alice about dying, and here it sounds like she's thought the whole thing through when I wasn't looking. "I don't think it matters," she says. "Once you're dead, you don't much care about the pain. And the person who keeps on living gets to do it with the memory of having said goodbye; of being there right to the bitter end." She sniffs back snot. "There's nothing graceful about dying, anyway." Bella said that once. "The morphine just comforts the living because the dying can't scream. Unless a person wants to go that way, I wouldn't choose it for anyone." I can't believe I'm hearing this shit. I get off her bed and head for the door. "Thank God you're not my next-of-kin." The slam of the door behind me doesn't do enough to distance me from that conversation. She would have let me suffer, if it had been up to her. And all I thought about for her was a quick and painless demise. Mom hears my loud exit from Alice's bedroom and comes to the upper hall to investigate. "Is she okay?" "She's fucked." I slam my bedroom door behind me and lock it. I take a shower to calm my nerves, but it doesn't help. When I get out I find a note from Alice slipped under my door: I'm sorry. I can't deal with this shit right now. I need to talk to someone who gets it, which immediately rules out all of my Seattle friends. I thought Alice would understand my position, having gone through my illness alongside me, but that turned out to be a fucking catastrophe. The only person who can stand to talk to me about the fucked up shit in my life is...Bella. As I hang my bathrobe back in the closet ­ the guy in the mirror looks hideous and pinched ­ I consider all the awkward ways that telling Alice is going to come back to bite me in the ass. I shouldn't have said anything. I should have brushed her off, like she did when I asked her what Bella said. If Bella hadn't made her cry none of this would have happened. I grab my phone off the dresser and send a short text: I told her about you. Before I can tell the rest of the story ­ that Alice actually agrees with her fucked up, borderline homicidal method ­ Bella replies with: You don't deserve friends. So that's what she thinks of me, is it? I may be standoffish and grouchy, but I'm not inherently a bad person. I don't deliberately harm the people I love. I can't believe I ever liked you. 241

It's not necessary to tell me what a monster I am. I don't think I could. There's no word for what I think of her. Ask Banner to assign you a new lab partner tomorrow, she texts. Don't put yourself through the trouble of having to acknowledge me. For once, I'm glad she's shutting down and pushing me away. It spares me the trouble of having to make peace with her. I'll do that. I toss my phone aside and flop back on my bed with an angry sigh. It's not cold in here, but the air pricks at my bare skin. I should stop wallowing, get up and put on clothes. But I don't. I lie there and stew in anger. I only relent and sit up when my teeth begin to chatter. I've still got the waterproof patch on my central line. I peel it off and toss it at the wastebasket. I miss. The guy in the closet mirror is watching me again, studying me where I sit on the corner of the bed. Fuck, he's gross. I want to tell him to fucking eat something and hasn't he ever heard of a tan? He's like an androgynous alien, boney and hairless with a machine sprouting out of his chest. I shut the closet door on him. Fucker. But then I'm left alone with myself, cold and naked. As I put on clothes, systematically covering up the disgustingly pale flesh and jutting bones, I find some relief in Bella's confession. Now that we're no longer involved, my inadequacy doesn't matter. If only I could get her out of my fucking head.

Friday

Alice doesn't say anything to me over breakfast. Or in the car. Or when I sit down with her clique at lunch. I chance a look over at Bella's usual table, but she isn't there. Weird. As I cross the parking lot to get to the science building I notice that her rusty old Chevy isn't here, either. She's absent. Bella is never absent. Maybe she's sick. She was fine yesterday. Maybe she transferred out. That bothers me far more than it should. I didn't get to say goodbye. Are you sure you want to? I want some closure, at least. I want her to apologize to Alice. I want to part ways with the knowledge that she's going to a place that will be able to deal with... her. Bella's absence distracts the hell out of me all through biology. Maybe I could talk to Jessica Stanley or Angela Weber ­ Bella might have mentioned to her other friends if she was planning to leave school. Her other friends? Slip of the tongue. I take stock of the parking lot once more as I head to the arts building for my last class of the day. Her truck still isn't here. It's stupid, but I leave the walkway that leads to the arts building and head for the main office instead. It's weird. I've never come here as a visitor. The nurse looks up at me from her desk and asks if I'm not feeling well. "No, I'm fine. Has Bella Swan been in here today?" The nurse finds my question surprising. "No, she hasn't." 242

"Great." I leave the main office to...stand in the parking lot. Where was I going? My phone is in my hand and I'm dialing her home number. Hopefully she's just sick and stayed home to rest. Hopefully? What the fuck do you care? Chief Swan answers the phone with a gruff 'hello.' I ask if Bella is available to come to the phone and he asks to know who is calling. "It's Edward Cullen." "Aren't you supposed to be in school?" "Yes, sir, I am." "Well then would you like to explain why you're obviously not in class, calling my daughter in the middle of the afternoon?" "I...uh, I noticed Bella was absent from our biology class. I wanted to know if she needed me to bring anything she might need. Homework, things in her locker..." "Get to class," he says. "And leave my daughter alone, while you're at it. She's had enough trouble." He hangs up on me. I have this rotten feeling of dread in my gut. She's had enough trouble. Maybe her parents pulled her from Forks High without warning her ­ a reform school might be in the cards after all. One of the hall monitors sees me standing in the middle of the parking lot. He comes out of the science building and calls out to me, "Do you have a pass?" She's gone and you're never going to see her again. I turn and vomit between the cars. My head is spinning. The only thing that keeps me upright is the hand I have braced on the trunk of the nearest car. "Hey!" The hall monitor approaches me and lays a tentative hand on my back. It's such a light touch, like he's afraid I'll break. Bella never once touched me like that. "You all right?" Before I can answer he announces that he's going to walk me to the nurse's office. Fucking over-eager freshman. Then I realize the tire I threw up on belongs to Mike Newton's car, and I feel a little bit better.

Saturday

The sun is high in the east by the time I roll out of bed and walk, still more asleep than awake, to the bathroom to take a shower. I strip with my brain on autopilot and cover my central line just as steam begins to rise from behind the shower curtain. As I doze under the warm spray coherent thoughts begin to circulate. They're timid and fragmented at first: I'm hungry. The chord progression needs work. Where'd I put that CD? It's Saturday ­ what time is it? Late enough to go over to-- That's a sobering thought. No more Saturdays at the Swan house. Not that I want to go over there, but...what the hell will I do with my time? Having no friends turns out to be really good for the homework situation. I bet that's why dorks are all so studious; not by choice, but by virtue of boredom. I knock out all my assignments by noon, and I have nothing left to do. There's nothing on TV. It's too rainy to go for a walk. There's nothing to do in Forks. Mom and Dad are out of the house, shopping for shrubs to plant by the porch this spring. Alice won't talk to me and Emmett is at work. And I can't stop thinking about Bella. Every hour it gets harder to resist the urge to call her. For all I know she could already be on a campus where students wear 243

wristband tracking devices and lockdown is the norm. I don't really care about her. I just want to know what's going on with her. Riiiight. Shut up. I call Kate. I need a dose of her twisted reality to take the edge off mine. "What do you want, bitch?" Kate's familiarly crass greeting makes me feel a little bit better. I ask her if she's busy and she says she's setting up for a band practice. "Why are you calling?" "Boredom." It's a synonym for loneliness in my case. Kate sees right through me and asks if I've got nothing better to do. "Pretty much." "How's that girl you've been chasing?" Fuck. "Uh, I don't want to talk about it." "What, is she dating some shaved gorilla now? Doesn't know what she's missing out on with you?" "It's not like that." "What's it like?" "Never mind." "You sound sexually frustrated. Your voice goes up an octave like that when you're horny." She laughs at me. "Is your girl a tease?" "No." Maybe. Or maybe I just have an overactive imagination. But it's hard to picture her in a nice way now. All that comes to mind if hospital rooms and a lot of blood. Kate can tell I'm not being truthful. "Rub one out. Ease the tension." "Kate." "Oh, right." Her tone dips from lighthearted to flat and sarcastic. "Is that what happened? Did you get her into bed and then disappoint her?" Fuck me. I thought it had been long enough ­ Kate's attention span is a short one ­ and that she wouldn't be sore about our abortive screw anymore. I guess not. "I'm sorry." "Don't worry about it." "No, really, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. I knew, you didn't." "Why did you do it?" she says shrewdly. "Why did you?" I'm used to that trick causing the end of a conversation, the way it does with Bella. Just ask her something she doesn't want to tell, and the whole discussion shuts down. I'm so used to it that I'm caught off guard when Kate actually answers the question. "I felt bad for you." I don't need to hear that. "Your turn." I swallow, considering how I can lie plausibly about this. I can't. "I...sort of, um...I liked the feeling of being wanted." "Was the, uh, problem really because of the cancer?" Kate asks. I can't help but smile. She's not trying to give me a hard time; it's just that her pride is wounded. I know a thing or two about that, but she doesn't deserve to second-guess herself. "Kate, we both know you're the sexiest chick to ever attach an amp to a violin." "Flatterer." "Fine, whatever, but it ups my street cred to say I fucked you, so don't go telling people otherwise." That makes her laugh and she calls me a lying cocksucker. I'm officially forgiven. I let the tension out of my shoulders and crawl onto the bed, relaxing against the pillows for a comfortable ­ and hopefully 244

time-consuming - conversation with my smart-mouthed friend. "Come on now, how's your girl?" she asks. She had to bring that up, didn't she? "I don't want to talk about it." And Bella certainly isn't mine in any sense of the term. "Did you give up on her already?" "It's not like that." Kate scoffs. "You want to explain it in a way that doesn't make you look like a gaping vagina? Because you were already behaving like a pussy about her before, and this sounds worse." "I was not." "Yes, you were. Massive vag. And not even the good kind with a wax job and a hood piercing ­ I mean a had-six-kids bat cave kind of vagina." "Kate." "Spill. What happened?" "Nothing." "You were freaking depressed over her just a few weeks ago. What, did your 'crush' burn out?" "Something like that." "Bullshit. It wasn't just a crush." "Yes it was." I can't let Kate think she's right. She never can resist the urge to say 'I told you so' when opportunity presents. "Did you finish that song for her?" I sigh. "Yeah." Kate crows. "I knew you were writing one!" Damn it. "Did she like it?" "I didn't give it to her." "Why not?" "It's complicated." "She's-fucking-someone-else complicated, or she-plays-for-the-other-team complicated?" Figures; those are the only two obstacles Kate has ever encountered in her love life. Except for that awkward non-fuck with me, of course. "In a we're-not-even-friends-anymore kind of way." That takes Kate aback. "Why not?" she demands. "She's not who I thought she was." "Well...so fucking what? You knew she wasn't perfect, and you still had it bad for her. It's not like you're so perfect ­ you play fucking Mozart, for crying out loud." "I can't explain it. Just take my word for it, okay?" "Edward," Kate says seriously. "You were happy when you talked about her. Your whole face lit up. You were the old you again. You're not supposed to throw away the things that make you feel that way." "She doesn't make me feel happy." "Liar." "She makes me feel...exposed." Kate laughs, low and sultry. In the background I hear the feedback of an amp being plugged in. "Trust's a bitch like that, huh?" she says. "Sometimes you do it without meaning to, and then it's too late and you're fucked." "I don't follow." "Shut the fuck up, yes you do." "Are you still cheating with that cellist?" "Edward." Kate's tone is light, but there's a no-bullshit business about it. "I'm gonna break this down for you, because the powers that be gave you a cock instead of a clue, and you're a chronic 245

fuckup when it comes to women: you still like her. Don't tell me you don't. You tolerated five whole minutes of conversation about her and just now tried to change the subject. So whatever the reason is that you're not friends with her anymore, fix it." "Or what?" The attempt at false bravado sounded better in my head. "Or you're going to be this bitter, horny asshole forever. Don't get me wrong, I still love you bitch, but you could do with a little happiness." I groan. "The cellist, Kate?" "Demon in the sack. Garrett doesn't know ­ too busy sucking endangered seal dick to notice. Now back to you ­ start working on fixing your shit. Get that smile back. Oh, and find a way to empty your balls. Celibacy doesn't agree with you." "Shut up." "You're grouchy when you're horny." "Let go of the idea of Bella and I ­ drop it right now 'cause it's never gonna happen." "Ah, she has a name," Kate coos. "At least talk to her, okay? Never burn a bridge." I sigh and Kate scolds me for being pessimistic. "Don't be a twat." "You're a twat." "No, I have a twat. And if you want me to keep quiet about that time with my twat and your dick, you'll smarten up and fly right." "You can be a real bitch, you know." "Bitch, please, you love me." "Don't get cocky." She laughs at me and says she has to go. "Gotta make real music. You know what that is, you classical dork?" "Does it sound like an elephant being raped? Cause your last song -" "Twat." Kate blows a raspberry into her phone. "Okay, really, I gotta go. Love you, bitch." "Ditto. Whore." Kate hangs up, and I'm back to being bored. I play piano for a little while, but once again it fails to satisfy. How is it fucking possible that every separation from Bella fucks with the most basic things in my life ­ my family, my music, my sleep? She's like a virus. You miss her. I don't even want to look at her. Yeah, 'cause that's why you got all shell-shocked by her absence yesterday. Call her. No. You know you want to talk to her. On some level I do miss talking to Bella. But what is there to talk about now? We can't just go back to discussing music and biology homework after...after what was said. The only thing left to say is ­ well, I'm not sure what, exactly, but I want to diffuse the tension. This doesn't strike me as the kind of conversation that should be had over the phone. I need to find a way to talk to her in private, face-to-face. But she probably doesn't want to see me any more than I want to see her. So I text her. Do you have my Nightdodger CD? I know she has it. I loaned it to her a week before our hike. Retrieving it will give me an excuse to go over to her house and see her. We can sit down and hash this out ­ and I have a feeling that'll take a while. You're not getting that back. Spiteful as ever, I see. You're being a child. 246

You're being a prick. This chick is driving me crazy. Mom and Dad return from their gardening trip, damp with rain and seemingly optimistic about their plans for the area around the front porch. Mom sees me sitting at the piano and smiles. "What are you playing?" "Just puttering around." I lay my hands on the keys and start playing her favorite song. I want to project a sense of normalcy to mask the fact that Alice and I still aren't speaking, and I'm having problems of my own. The music does comfort her ­ she hums along with it as she heads to the kitchen. It's one of those simple, gentle melodies that make great love songs. This one has no lyrics, but it sounds loving nonetheless. When the song ends I look up and see Mom and Dad slow-dancing in the kitchen. At least somebody's happy.

Sunday

I step out of the shower, still pissed off that it's morning already, and turn on the bathroom light. It takes me a few bleary seconds to notice the message written in the steam on the mirror: Clear the air. There's a milkshake sitting on the counter. How the hell did Alice get in here without me noticing? I still drink the milkshake. Her loopy words on the mirror feel like more of a demand than a suggestion. I dry off, get dressed, and go downstairs to meet her. Dad is at the stove, trying and failing to flip-toss a pancake. It falls to the floor and Emmett shouts "Five second rule!" Mom is engrossed in the Sunday morning crossword, and Alice is nursing a giant cup of coffee with her knees pulled up. I walk around behind her chair and wrap an arm around her shoulders. She grunts tiredly as I kiss the top of her head. "I'm sorry," I whisper. Alice reaches a hand back to pat me on the head. I love that apologies can be this simple with her. "Thanks for the milkshake." "Sure." I pull my chair out and Alice says, "So how's Bella?" She says it lightly, but I can hear the agenda in her tone. Mom looks up from the crossword with a smile. She's just as interested in my response as Alice is. "Invite her over now," Dad says before I can answer. "I can make more batter." I think he just wants an excuse to practice his flip-toss some more. Even if Bella and I were on good terms, it would be hard to sell her on the idea of pancakes fresh off the floor. Alice gives me a pointed look and it dawns on me that the message in the mirror wasn't solely about her. I have to end the tension with Bella. "Actually, I was gonna go over there." I ask Mom if I can borrow her car. Alice elbows me playfully. "No you can't come." "Why not?" she pretends to pout. She knows perfectly well why not. "I like Bella. She's a good friend." The last two words bear a special emphasis, making it clear who she's still rooting for, if I still had any doubts. I park down the street from the Swan house and sit there for about five minutes, giving myself a pep talk. Just go in, tie off the loose ends, say goodbye and pretend I never knew Bella Swan. I don't want to get out of the car. If I do that I will put in motion the end of my only friendship in this tiny, boring town. But is it a friendship worth keeping? When I finally do approach the house I'm relieved to find that Chief Swan's cruiser isn't in the 247

driveway. I know I'm not his favorite person, and it bodes well for me that he isn't around to shut down this meeting with Bella before it can even start. I go up to the front door to knock and I catch a glimpse of her through the front window. She's lying on the couch, sleeping. Should I wake her? I go to ring the doorbell, but then I hesitate. Maybe I should come back later. I shouldn't wake her up... Or I could wake her up with something nicer than a doorbell. I try the handle. It's locked. Same with the side door off the garage. I go around to the back door and test the handle. It, at least, is open. I let myself in as quietly as possible, but Bella wakes up anyway. She comes into the kitchen and stops dead when she sees me standing there. Bella looks like hell. She has dark circles under her eyes and her clothes seem to hang on her like a scarecrow without stuffing. Her hair is limp. Her face is pale. She looks...sick. "I destroyed your CD. You can fuck off now." Not exactly the welcome I was hoping for, but it'll do. "That's a shame. I was gonna let you keep it." It's just a CD ­ a small price to pay for ending this with as few hard feelings as possible. Bella doesn't seem to care. Her face is completely blank. "Um, can we talk?" "I thought we'd already said it all." She turns away from me and goes to the stove. I've upset her already, if she's turning to cooking ­ or maybe she was still upset before I walked in. "Smells good." It smells like a holiday meal ­ like warm meat and vegetables and sweet, juicy gravy. It seems indecent to be hungry when I came here to cut ties, but I can't help it. Bella doesn't answer me. I tug gently on the back of her sweater, hoping she'll at least face me, but she doesn't. "You don't look well." She looks sore and pathetic. I'd give her a hug but she'd probably punch me for trying. You'd do what now? Nothing. It was just an errant thought. "Neither do you," she says dryly. I let go of her sweater. I should probably go; she doesn't want to listen to me. Bella finally looks over her shoulder at me. Her eyes narrow and she frowns. "You need carrots. And protein. What the hell have you been doing with yourself?" She turns to open the cupboard and I almost smile. She wouldn't want to feed me if she hated me entirely, right? Maybe we can talk this out like human beings and not have it turn into a fight. And that soup smells fantastic. Bella carefully scoops some out for me ­ heavy on the carrots ­ but her eyes are still sad. Normally they spark when she doles out the results of a successful recipe. I start to wonder if she's giving me food because she feels obligated. I don't want to owe her anything. "You don't have to -" "Eat," she interrupts. "I'm not giving it to you to be friendly, so don't waste your time feeling guilty. Just eat it." I would, but she's killing my appetite. If she's not being friendly, than what is it that motivates her? Pity? Guilt? Duty? Maybe I underestimated her sincerity when she said I didn't deserve friends. "I want to talk to you." Bella hands me a spoon. "Talking doesn't work out so hot for us. Just eat." She's not going to let down her dismissive attitude. I'll just have to work around it, or I'll never get the opportunity to say what I want to say. "I said stuff I shouldn't have." 248

Bella dismisses me again: "No shit. Let's not beat a dead horse by discussing it, okay?" No dice. I came here to clear the air, not to mooch soup and sit in silence. Alice did a more than adequate job of pointing out my fuckups during my explanation of Wednesday. It seems probable that Bella will be more amenable to discussion if I take responsibility for my wrongdoings first, so I open with: "I came here to apologize. Some of those things I said..." Should I insult myself or just keep it simple? "I really didn't mean them." Bella slams the lid back down on the pot. Shit. I should have insulted myself. "Well that's the kicker, isn't it? Which words did you mean?" Nothing sucks worse than the moment in an argument when you realize that you might have brought a knife to a gunfight. I know I said some shit things to her, but I couldn't possibly recount them all. I was angry ­ I wasn't thinking through what I said. It was impulsive and heated. She probably remembers every nasty word to hold over my head, and I only remember the highlights. "I was mad, okay?" "Don't get defensive," she tells me flatly. "I know you were upset. There's only one thing you said that I really care about anyway." My stomach drops. I know exactly what she's talking about. "Maybe I didn't mean it. I'm not sure." Bella points to the back door. "Get out of my house." I better fix this quick, before she shoves me out the door. "I didn't mean you haven't suffered. But...it's different. You haven't lived in fear of your own life." Don't lecture her if you know what's good for you. "You wouldn't think like that ­ you wouldn't take your life so lightly ­ if you had, I mean...um..." How do I explain that the fight to live is more difficult than the decision to die? And you would know...? Jane. "Is that what you came over here to say?" she asks. "I came over to say a lot of things." If she'll let me. Bella sighs and points to the dining table. "Eat first." She turns away and pads down the hall. I'm not done talking to her yet. "Bella?" "I'm just getting dressed. Eat your fucking soup already." Her last sentence gives me hope. She said it without heat ­ just her usual foul mouth. Her tone was almost fond, like the way she speaks when she tells me to shut the hell up for annoying her. And Good Lord, this soup is good... I'm plowing through it like it's the last food on earth when my phone vibrates in my pocket. It's a text message from Kate: Have you fixed your shit yet? Got a gig coming up. Want you to bring B. Her enthusiasm is depressing. Fixing it. Ending it. When's the gig? Ending? You are a fucking dipshit. She punctuates that text with several aggressive emoticons. Get over yourself and be happy, damn it. I'm at her house right now. Not a happy place. I hit 'send' and look around the kitchen. I'm not sure how truthful that text was. This kitchen is the site of a lot of stuff between Bella and I ­ soups and fights and bargaining; harsh words and gentle touches. I don't want to give all that up just yet, but I can't stand to let the reality of Bella's mistakes slide by. I can't condone what she did. I can't see how we would make our way to being friends again, whether or not I want to be. I sort of hope this whole closure thing takes all afternoon, knowing it'll be the last time I really talk to her. 249

I hear Bella's footsteps on the stairs and I pocket my phone. The rest of my soup is gone in two big bites before she can even walk the length of the hall. I'm not exactly sure why Bella "got dressed." She just seems to have traded grey sweatpants and a pajama top for black sweatpants and a hoodie. But her hair seems to be combed, and she generally looks a little better than she did five minutes ago. She takes one look at me and plugs in the electric kettle. Tea? Bella picks up my bowl and ladles more soup out for me. Fucking yes. "Thanks. I wasn't sure if I should just take seconds without asking." I'm barely back in her good graces; best not to push just yet. Bella sets the bowl in front of me and then opens the freezer. She tosses me a strawberry yogurt pop. She knows I love these. She wouldn't give it to me if she was only feeding me out of pity or guilt, would she? "Are we okay now?" I expected to have to work to set the stage for a civilized conversation. Bella looks at me with that deeply penetrating expression. "We're talking again." "About that..." "Say it. Don't dawdle." "We have things to discuss." "You didn't get it all out on Wednesday?" She gives me that look that makes me feel totally exposed without saying a word. I apologize for the way I interrogated her on the hike, and she agrees to sit down at the table with me. Bella pulls her hood up and folds her arms as if she's cold. I can't cut her down when she already looks so downtrodden and vulnerable. It's like wringing a kitten's neck. I lick my lips, stalling. It didn't used to be this hard to just talk to her. So talk. "Tell me about the psych ward." "What's there to tell?" "I don't know. I've never been in one." Bella sighs resignedly. "Take a prison mentality, since most people who wind up in psych wards don't do so voluntarily, and throw in the fact that half the people there live in an alternate reality, a third are going through hell trying to detox, and the rest are starving to death - and you have a psych ward. Questions?" "What group were you in?" "They kept me pretty drugged up at first, so I guess I fit in the 'alternate reality' group. I could come back to the rational surface when I skipped a dose, though." "You mean when you passed off your meds to a recovering addict?" Bella rolls her eyes. "I get it. I'm Satan. Are you done now?" "I didn't say that." "Your tone did." "I didn't mean it that way." "Then what did you mean?" "I was trying to clarify the situation - you said you gave your meds to a junkie." "And that makes me a horrible person." "I didn't say that!" I don't really care about the addict. I don't think it was Bella's most admirable moment, but it's small change compared to killing her grandmother. "I gave her my Ambien because she bothered me, alright? People get in your face if they know you have a prescription for something good. Giving her my Ambien got her out of my face, and in return she did stuff for me." "What kind of stuff?" 250

"Prison mentality, remember? You have to have a group of people you rely on to keep the cage from overshadowing the wide world beyond. Sometimes she'd give me extra food, or access to a newspaper, or cause a scene so the rest of us could get a few minutes without the orderlies breathing down our fucking necks." "The staff must have known she was high." "Of course they did. They just had a hard time tracing her sources. She'd take anything, so they knew by her behavior ­ calm one day and buzzing the next ­ that she had a couple people to pump drugs from. Riley's antipsychotics made her into a total nightmare." "You still shouldn't have given your pills to her." Bella snorts. "What wouldn't you give to a desperate psycho with a razorblade or two hidden in their clothes? There are no heroes in hell. You just get by as well as you can, and that's it." "You're rationalizing." Bella steals a cold carrot out of my bowl. "Alright, smartass. Let's say I tell you that you shouldn't have taken all those chemotherapy treatments. Sure, it made you cancer-free, but look at all the shit it cost you along the way. Would you throw your hands up and admit I'm right? Or would you defend your decision to live in pieces instead of die whole? We're all just getting by with the options available to us. Get off your high horse." "That is complete bullshit," I tell her. "You made a choice to do what you did. I didn't just decide one day to have cancer." Bella just shakes her head. "You don't get it. All the things you loved, the things that cancer cost you ­ do you think that loss would have been any less significant if it had come from a bad decision instead of random accident? Would it have made you feel fucking empowered to throw it all away on purpose? Or would it haunt you that the responsibility was yours to bear?" She snatches my bowl away and gets up to dump the dregs of soup in the sink. "You told me my feelings mattered when I agreed not to cut you out," she says. "So quit fucking belittling me." I hate it when she's right. "I'm sorry." The apology doesn't do much good. She's on a roll now. "You bitch, piss and moan constantly that you're so fucking hard-done-by. Imagine how awful you'd feel if you were actually at fault for the shit things that have happened to you." "What do you want me to say? That you've got the harder life?" That makes her pause. Bella stands there in the middle of the kitchen with her mouth hanging open. I've stunned her speechless. "You...are so fucking dense," she says quietly, like she can't quite believe it. "This isn't a contest. I don't want to one-up you. I want to matter to you." "You think you don't matter to me?" What fucking planet is she on? I wouldn't be here if she didn't matter to me, even against my better judgment. I wouldn't be driving myself insane trying to come to terms with her fucked up past and frustrating personality. I wouldn't be so thoroughly distracted by her absence from school. I would have walked away from her without a backward glance and been glad to be rid of her ­ yet here I am. "Forget it," Bella says. She nods to the back door and tells me I can go now. I look at her, standing with her arms folded and the shades drawn over her eyes. She's cold and closed in, retreating instead of continuing the fight. "We're not done talking." "Yes, we are." "Will you drop the frigid bitch act for a minute? I know you're human underneath. I am trying to understand the shit-ton of stuff you dumped on me last week, okay? I'm trying ­ and you haven't always done that for me, so don't act like I owe you anything. But I can only muster up so much 251

compassion for--" "Shut up," she interrupts me. Her tone is sharp enough to cut glass. "I don't want your fucking compassion. I trusted you to at least treat me with civility, and you asked me if I carved a swastika in my dead grandmother's forehead. You called me a nutcase and said that my pain was insignificant. Now how the fuck does that compare to me refusing to attend the pity party you've been throwing yourself for months?" She shouts the last part, so the silence that follows is like thick fog. It chokes the room and amplifies the distance between us, even though Bella is only a few feet away from me, fuming by the counter. Her anger doesn't frighten me the way it used to. This is Bella. When things get rough she shuts down and shuts people out. When that fails she gets angry, pushing away instead of merely blocking. And when that doesn't work...she cracks. "Regardless" ­ her eyes narrow at me ­ "we're still not done talking." Bella's bedroom is more of a mess than usual. I suppose it's to be expected. Bella herself is more of a mess than usual. She picks up a CD case off her shelf and hands it to me. "No, keep it, really." "This doesn't mean I forgive you." "Ditto." Bella sits down heavily on the edge of the bed. She's got an odd sense of peace ­ or perhaps defeat ­ about her, and I don't know how long it will last. She might give anger another try at any moment if I give her an excuse. "You took the rest of your meds when you got home?" She draws my memory back to Wednesday, to trying to take three pills at once without enough fluid to wash them down. Gag. "Yeah." "Were you hurting before I...? Before you said anything about it?" "Just a dull ache," I tell her quietly. Bella nods sadly. When she speaks her voice is soft and mournful. "I shouldn't have made you hike like that. I should have waited to take you there." I can't help but find that amusing. "Swan, it would have hurt with or without the hike. I've got joint pain from ­" I hesitate. I'm in the habit of avoiding this subject; I don't know how to talk about it. I leave the sentence hanging and shrug. "You probably already googled it." "I didn't." Well now I feel like an asshole for googling her medications. "Really?" "I told you, I care far less about your cancer than you might think." Bella sighs like she's exhausted. I take a seat next to her on the edge of the bed and she doesn't stop me. My phone vibrates again. The buzzing sounds louder than it actually is in the silence of Bella's bedroom. "Excuse me." I check my phone, expecting another angry text from Kate, but it's a message from Alice: Look in the trunk. The fuck? "Uh...give me a minute." Bella doesn't say anything. She just stares straight ahead with that dead look in her eye and gives no indication that she heard me. I leave her like that and go downstairs, out into the misting rain to open Mom's trunk. Maybe Mom forgot something in there that she intended to use today. The only thing in the trunk other than the first aid kit and emergency blanket is a paper bag folded 252

around a square object. Alice's loopy handwriting is on the top side: Please don't screw this up. I open the top of the paper bag and my stomach drops. I recognize the black cover on the book without having to open it. It's the photo album that usually sits on my third shelf. What the hell is it doing in the trunk of the car? I call Alice. She skips the hello and asks if Bella and I have made up yet. "Why the hell did you put this in the trunk?" "I thought you might need it." "Why?" "I thought she'd be...curious. You said you asked her questions, but she didn't ask you any. Bella must wonder. And didn't she show you her pictures?" "This isn't a tit-for-tat situation." "She's your friend." "Al, I'm not sure what you were expecting, but I'm not here to make up with her. I'm here to get a clean break." A move the phone away from my ear to spare myself her squawk of indignation. "But it's Bella." "This doesn't concern you." "You're not going to get a clean break," she says moodily. That little snot. "Goodbye, Alice." I hang up on her and silence the ringer so she can't bother me by repeatedly trying to call back. Fuck. I close the trunk without putting the album back. Should I show it to Bella? Do I owe her an explanation when I plan to cut ties? Is it fair to share all this stuff and then never speak again? I lift the book out of the bag and find another of Alice's cheeky little surprises: she taped a recent Polaroid of me to the front cover. It's the snapshot she took after I came in from kissing Bella on the porch, right before Alice ratted me out to Mom. That's the smile Kate was talking about. I look so fucking happy in the photo. It seems like an image of a simpler time, before Bella's baggage parked itself between us, revealing her to be something much more sinister than just an angry teenaged girl. She can deal with your baggage. My baggage doesn't include killing someone. Compared to her you look normal. All the more reason to end it. But what are you without her? I look back to the Swan house. I could just get in the car and drive away right now. Bella probably wouldn't miss me. She's just as upset with me as I am with her, and she's practically in a walking coma ­ I bet she hasn't even realized I've left the room yet. A week ago that would have worried you. I don't care anymore. Sure. I don't. So drive away. We're not done talking yet. You just can't stand to leave.

253

Bella has moved all of two feet in the ten minutes I was away. She lies on her bed with her pillow resting squarely over her face. Blocking out the world, or a half-assed attempt to suffocate herself? I lift the pillow off her face and Bella lazily opens her eyes. "I thought you left." "I just went down to the car." Bella sits up like the movement is a great challenge and swings her legs out of bed. "Don't let me keep you if you have some place to be," she says. "I don't," I assure her. "We're not done yet." I sit next to her on the bed. "We still have to go to school and have class together. It'll be awkward and unproductive unless we, uh...reach an understanding." Bella sighs and nods. "I'll leave you alone if you leave me." "That's not what I meant." The words tumble forth impulsively, and I wish I could take them back. So what did you mean, smartass? Bella asks the same question in fewer words. "Um...I don't think we should totally ignore each other." Bella looks over at me with dead eyes and a smirk. "Right. I forgot the part where you continue to use me until you can make other friends." "No, it's not like that." "Don't tell me you still want to be friends?" "No, I don't." I'm too disappointed in her to manage that. "But...I'm not ready to just cut you out completely." "What if I'm ready to cut you out?" She's giving me that sideways look that could mean anything, and it's difficult not to show the effect her question has on me. She's good at cutting people out cold turkey; it sucked last time she did it to me. I shouldn't care about that anymore, but I do. "Are you?" "No." She shakes her head. "I still think well of you, for the most part. You're the one who thinks I'm a monster." Do I think that? "You think I'm a self-pitying fathead." "Only sometimes. Most of the time you're pretty cool. You've grown on me." Bella offers up a weak smile. It's sad to watch her meager attempt to seem happy. She knows it's not working, so she relaxes her mouth back into an apathetic frown and clears her throat. "What's that?" She points to the paper bag on my other side. "Um..." I open the bag take out a black photo album. It's... a peace offering? a way of settling a debt? "I still owe you, for showing me yours..." Bella stares at the book and makes no move to take it from me. "Show me." "Uh..." I was sort of banking on her looking through it herself. I don't want to have to discuss it. If she asked questions I would answer them, but I don't want to do show-and-tell. I can't. "Are you just doing this because I showed you mine?" "Yeah, speaking of, why was she smoking a joint in front of you when you were just a kid in that one photo?" Bella gives me a dry look. "Don't try to change the subject." "Will you just take the book?" I extend the album to her again. "No." "Why not?" 254

"Because you obviously want me to." She smirks without humor. "Show me, Edward." I don't have the guts to show her. If she left it up to me, I would never open the cover. I need her to take it and turn the pages and really look and see, the way she made me see Elsie. Maybe if I talk long enough, explaining the album without really showing her, she'll get impatient and take it from me. "You already know I had a transplant. Alice was the donor. She and I are a match, but Emmett and I aren't, and he felt sort of...left out. He, um...well, he had a harder time with me being sick than Alice did. But he had this idea ­ he took pictures. I hated him for it at the time, but he said that at some point down the road I was going to have a rough day and I could look at these pictures to put a real bad day in perspective." I hand her the album. She doesn't take it. "If you don't trust me enough to show me you shouldn't have brought it here." Fuck. I hate it when she's right. Bite the bullet. I balance the book on its spine and let it fall open. We're starting from the middle of the book, then, at the shots Emmett took around Christmastime. The shots on this particular page are of Alice and I. We're lying side by side in the same hospital bed, even though it was against the rules. We're both wearing red and green toques, and Alice has a surgical mask over her nose and mouth. Emmett drew a smile on her mask for the photo and put an ornament on my IV pole. "That was a week or so after they let me out of isolation, from the transplant." "It looks like Alice bounced back pretty well." I swallow and refrain from answering. Just a few weeks before that photo was taken Alice nearly slipped into a coma. My baby sister almost died trying to save me. I couldn't even visit her; my immune system was too diminished. I relied on Polaroids from Emmett as proof that she was still alive and on the mend. Maybe 'relied' isn't the right word ­ I practically demanded photo updates several times a day. I had to burn those pictures, after. I couldn't stand to look at them. Bella flips back to the beginning of the book and new set of photos. I still had hair when Emmett began taking pictures. In these I'm curled up in the fetal position, green in the face and sweating from the pain. Mom is holding a cold cloth against my neck. I remember that photo. I puked all over myself just a few minutes after it was taken. Bella flips the page, to the pictures of Alice and I after she knit me that first hat. I look morose under the affected smile as she perches with her chin on my shoulder, next to her new creation. The next photos are of my second round of chemo, where I had to have injections put directly into my spine. Bella pauses on those for a long time. "It didn't hurt," I say. "They numbed me. I just had a bit of a headache after." She touches my dad's image in the photo. He was with me for that treatment. While I was curled up for a jab in the spine he sat facing me and we talked about music. I remember asking him if he'd ever done an injection like that on a patient. He said he had, and he looked so uncomfortable that I quickly changed the subject. "Were they drawing fluid or injecting you?" "Injecting." "And Alice gave you marrow? Or was it something to do with your kidneys?" "Marrow." I snort at the memory. "You want to know something? We had the transplant scheduled for early October. I had chemo and full-body radiation to prepare for it; ended up feeling like complete shit. And then her pre-op blood work comes back positive for strep throat. We had to put off the transplant until she was well again. I went through hell for a procedure that got delayed." 255

Bella chuckles with dark amusement. "Is that irony? Or just bad luck?" "Bad luck, but it could have been worse. My good luck was that she was a match and willing to donate." Bella flips a few more pages. She remarks that Emmett isn't in any of these photos. "He was behind the camera." I skim ahead a few pages to the solitary photo of Emmett in the whole album. It was taken by accident, and his face is only visible in the corner of the frame because the lens was pointing toward a mirror. Emmett had a rare serious expression on at the time. Bella studies that frame for a long time. "How'd he handle it?" "Em..." How do I describe my brother's reaction? "He was angry at first. He took off to Seattle and stayed with Rosalie's family for a few days. When he came back he was sort of resentful ­ sometimes of me, or our parents, or because we were all pretty much helpless." I shrug. "He came around during my second round of chemo. I had all kinds of bleeding problems at the time ­ nosebleeds so bad they required a trip to the ER, bruises all over, you name it. I couldn't clot properly and I had low iron so I was weak all the time. Most days I couldn't even walk down the stairs or cross the room without feeling tired. So...Em carried me. I'd put an arm over his shoulders and shuffle along beside him. On Mom's birthday I was too weak and dizzy to do stairs, so he picked me right up and brought me down to the kitchen so we could celebrate as a family." "That's really nice of him." I smile for effect and tell her I agree. It's convenient to leave out the part of that story where I passed out at the breakfast table, landed on my nose hard enough to make it bleed, and ruined Mom's birthday with a trip to the ER. Bella continues to flip pages, studying the Polaroids with a look of frank interest. She snorts at the picture of Alice with her hand stuck in the fourth floor vending machine. "Her pretzels got caught." When she gets to the picture of Mom hugging one of the doctors she pauses. Emmett took this picture while standing behind the doctor, so all that's visible is Mom's face over his shoulder and her arms around the doctor's neck. She's grinning and crying all at once in this picture. "Good news," Bella notes. I tell her that that was the day Alice's bloodwork came back with a positive match for donation. Bella actually smiles. I take the book from her then and close it. Might as well end on a happy note, and I know that most of the other pictures in that book are sad ones. I put the album in the bag and Bella quietly offers not to talk about her grandmother with me anymore. "It upsets you, and we can't really relate on that subject anyway." I want to say yes. "Are you sure?" "I'm not used to talking about her. I don't know how." "You talked to your shrinks about her." "I lied," she whispers. "All the fucking time. I lied in Group, too, but everybody did. I never told anybody the real thing. I would just make up stories until they were satisfied that I'd said enough." "Why would you do that? They were there to help you." Bella raises her chin a little. "I didn't trust them not to judge me for it. Come on, fifteen year old kid kills her grandmother ­ everyone is going to have an opinion about it. Everyone did, so I told them what they wanted to hear and nothing else." She didn't say it outright, but her accusation swims just under the surface: I didn't trust them not to judge me for it. She trusted me with her secrets, and I judged her for them. "I shouldn't have snapped on you. If I had walked away and -" 256

"Edward," Bella interrupts. "I didn't expect you to be happy about it." "I know, but I shouldn't have said that shit you. I meant some of the things I said, but it was still rude to say them." Bella rolls her eyes at me and lies back on the bed. She curls away from me, facing the wall with her knees drawn up. "Don't you ever get tired of feeling guilty?" she says. "I'll forgive you for what you said because I'm tired of feeling shitty about it, just like I'm tired of talking about my grandma. I shouldn't have told you about it. The whole point of moving to Forks was so that my mistake would no longer define me to others. It was illogical to tell you, really." Bella doesn't move when I lay a hand on her back. It's a strange thing, looking at her in this position. It's usually the other way around. I rub small circles between her shoulder blades and she doesn't tell me to stop. You can't do shit like that and expect a clean break. My hand stays. It just feels right. You're an idiot. "Why'd you do it?" "Tell you?" "Kill her." "Don't ask me that. Mom used to ask me that. The lawyers used to ask me that." "Was it mercy or resentment?" I want to know if Alice is right ­ if she did it out of some twisted form of love, or out of selfish desire to end the nightmare. "I don't remember," Bella murmurs. "Okay. Now tell me the truth." "You wouldn't believe me." "You don't trust me." Would you if you were her? Bella rolls over to face me. Her small hands grip the upper sleeves of my sweater, and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" comes to mind. She holds me there to assure my attention as that deadly calm look comes over her face. Bella looks like that when she's on the verge of shutting down. "Her ideal death was at the kitchen table with a cigarette and a glass of gin, okay? Hardly realistic, but she wanted to die at home. She wouldn't sign a DNR because she said no one was going to dare call an ambulance if something happened to her at home. She and Mom had a huge fight over it." Bella's fingers tighten around my shirt. "She quit her Oxy ­ refused pain relief for weeks. She knew her body would give out faster if she was allowed to feel the strain, and she wanted to go naturally ­ it was inevitable, she said." Bella pauses, and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say something. But she just takes a few seconds to collect herself. When she speaks again her voice isn't as flat and smooth as before. "She only got the trach because she wanted to keep smoking. It was her last pleasure. But that was the end of her desired interventions. By summer she was hurting real bad and said she wanted to go to hospice. Her meds would be controlled there. She wouldn't have the option to give up and toss back a handful of the narcotics she'd been prescribed but not using." Bella gives a sad little sigh. "She didn't want the trach to be hooked up to a ventilator, but when she started to lose mental clarity all the decisions became Mom's responsibility as next-of-kin. It kept her alive long after her lungs would have just quit under their own power. She couldn't eat or drink anymore, except what they could give her intravenously. It wasn't the natural death she'd envisioned for herself." I open my mouth to argue ­ Elsie's ideal death certainly wasn't workable, as Bella pointed out, and just because she wanted something at one point in time doesn't mean she wanted the same thing when it came down to the moment. Maybe she underestimated the pain and would have liked to die quietly, 257

under sedation, in the hands of trained professionals. Bella claps a hand over my mouth before I can say any of that. "She wanted to die at the first opportunity. I saw the opportunity and I helped her take it. She died like she would have if she hadn't gotten the trach to keep smoking. Mom actually blamed herself before she blamed me. She thought if she hadn't fallen asleep..." "Did she ever forgive you?" "We don't talk about it." Bella lets go of my sleeves and sits back. "I didn't tell her why I did it. I didn't want her to feel like my bad decision was any reflection on her bad decisions ­ the ventilator, among others." She shrugs. "Forgiveness is sort of irrelevant, all things considered. Can't bring back the dead." Bella looks away from me. She stares at the floor with utter apathy. Shut down again. She can't feel broken if she doesn't feel anything. How could I have known her and not realized she was carrying all this around? How could she gave kept this from people ­ her counselors and parents and friends? From me? "I'm sorry," I tell her quietly, "that I walked away. I should have heard you out. I should have really listened." Bella still doesn't look at me. "I don't blame you." The words are so quiet I almost miss them. "I've never told anyone before," she continues equally quietly. "I didn't know how to say it. I didn't know how to help you see..." She cuts herself off with a painful gulp. Her cheeks turn warm and her eyes are glassy under her lowered lids. "It was horrible. She was just...gone." It's painful to watch her not cry, holding in sobs between shaky breaths. I put a tentative arm around her shoulders and Bella slowly leans toward me, like a tall tree falling. She sniffles a little between deep, calming breaths, unwilling to fall to pieces. "So why'd you tell me?" I ask lowly. It takes Bella a few seconds to answer. She takes a few shaky breaths, testing the smoothness of her voice. "Because we liked each other. I didn't know where it was going. We might have learned to love each other. You can't love someone if you don't really know them. And if you can't love them at their darkest moments...you just can't." Bella swipes the cuff of her sleeve across her eyes, mopping away tears before they have the chance to escape her lids. "You think we could have had that?" The images, the lunatic fantasies, of Bella as my girlfriend seem so far away. They star a girl who was merely bereaved, not shattered and abandoned. I don't know what to do with this new Bella. "Doesn't matter." She shakes her head. "Everything's different now." "Friends?" I offer. "I didn't ask Banner to switch us. We're still lab partners. But..." I don't want her to slip out of my life completely. It's boring and lonely without her. She's become a part of my life in Forks. I sort of need her, and I'd like to think she needs me, whether she'd admit it or not. "Let's start over," Bella says. "Back to just...whatever we were before." I lay my cheek atop her head and squeeze her to my side. "Okay. We'll be... well, we'll try again." Bella sighs. "I'm tired." "Do you want me to go?" Please say no. Bella shakes her head. We sit there for a little while, saying nothing. I move my hand slowly against her arm, rubbing a small length in what I hope is a comforting manner. Eventually Bella sits up without a word and turns away from me to lie down. She faces the wall again and pulls her knees up. It feels like she's pulling away. "Are you sure you don't want me to go?" Bella tucks her pillow under her chin and murmurs, "Please stay." It's unaccountable that two little 258

words should give me such a sense of relief ­ I was set to cut ties with her twenty minutes ago. But I don't question it because it feels good and Bella looks...well, she looks like she needs something. You? Please. Yeah, me. There are no words left and so much yet to say. I take her iPod off he nightstand and lay down behind her. She's so small, curled up as she is. I nestle my front against her back and fit a bud into her ear. "Can I pick?" she says quietly, and holds out her hand for the iPod. I pass it to her and Bella chooses "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. It's gentle and passionate ­ the very reason I chose this song for our bedtime exchange a few weeks ago. It's a tone that Bella needs right now, but I don't think that's what she had in mind when she chose it. The chorus sticks out amid the lyrics and makes me think of her: And I don't want the world to see me, 'cause I don't think that they'd understand. When everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am. I wrap an arm around her middle and hold her close. Bella adjusts her position slightly, straightening her back a little so it's easy to spoon her. The bridge of my nose rests against the curve at the back of her skull, breathing in the scent of her hair. I used to imagine this ­ cuddling with Bella in her narrow purple bed. I never imagined it quite under these circumstances. "Iris" comes to a close, and it's my turn to pick. I scroll through Bella's list of songs, looking for her Great Big Sea collection. We need something upbeat, and I have a particular song in mind: "Bad As I Am." Bella is mildly amused by this selection. She can't help but tap her toe to the beat, and who can blame her? When it's her turn to pick she takes us back down again with "Mad World" by Gary Jules. I hold Bella a little tighter, stroking circles on her wrists. It's a simple piano melody and the words are slow and measured, like something in a dream. The lyrics could have been written about Bella. Maybe even the chorus applies. I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had. "You dream about dying?" I whisper. "You do too." It's not a question. I both love and hate how she just knows me like that. "Never of cancer," I tell her. "Of course not. That's too obvious." She sighs. "You always die by falling." "How'd you know?" Bella shrugs. There's a sort of finality to it, like she isn't going to tell me now or ever. "I always lie down alone, like a wild animal in the woods, and it all just slips away." "Bella...was it really the meds?" I hope she'll know what I mean without me having to really say it. I don't like to think of her trying to kill herself. Bella shrugs. "You can't tell that you're fucked in the head when you're fucked in the head." "Was that the only time you thought of...?" "No." Bella turns down the volume on her iPod so we can hear each other better. "And yes. I experimented with cutting, but that didn't last long. I just wanted to try it 'cause some of the other kids in Group were doing it." "You harmed yourself to fit in?" "They were just little nicks. I used the blade from a pencil sharpener ­ can't do much damage with that. It didn't make me feel any different, so I quit." Bella turns the volume back up, effectively cutting off this line of conversation. The song ends and she passes the iPod over her shoulder to me. I want to suggest "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind. "Too much?" I ask. Bella rolls her eyes and mutters something that I probably don't want to hear. The only word I catch 259

is 'dumbass.' I opt for "Lightning Crashes" by Live instead. "I'm kind of glad I told you when I did," Bella says suddenly. "It saved us a lot of wasted effort." "What?" "The way you reacted, the way we can barely be friends now ­ it just proves that we didn't feel that strongly about each other. A crush crumbles easily like that." "I don't not like you." "I don't not like you either." Bella looks over her shoulder at me. "But an 'us' wouldn't work. There's no trust. We can barely manage respect." I want to say 'give it time,' but I don't want to make a promise that I might not be able to keep. "Did you think about an 'us,' before?" "I wondered." "About what?" "A lot of things," she answers vaguely. "It doesn't matter now. The failure of it all hinges on the fact that, once again, I am my mistake. I can't undo that; just have to live with it." If I didn't know her I might have missed the undertone of pain in her voice. It saddens me to know she thinks of herself that way, bogged down and isolated by guilt. I tighten my arm around her middle, holding her tight. "You're not your mistake." "But you still don't forgive me." "No, I don't." "That's okay," she says softly. "You're not alone." It's a strange sort of truce, this. We don't hate each other. We don't exactly like each other. We're friends ­ in the most intimate sense of the word. We've apologized, but not forgiven. We've trusted and sacrificed for a payoff that isn't clear yet. It feels...right. I'm content. I ask Bella if she is and she answers in a tone of surprise: "Yeah. I am." Her warm little hand laces its fingers with mine. "This was really...honest." "That's new for us." Bella snorts with wry amusement. She takes the iPod and announces that we need something relaxing. "Something that sounds like a lullaby." "Are you sleepy?" "I'm coasting." She puts on "Possibility" by Sierra Noble and tells me it's her go-to on nights she can't sleep. My go-to on sleepless nights is the sound of Bella's voice. I don't tell her that. Bella falls asleep first. I stay awake to watch her, enjoying the slow cadence of her breathing and the simple fact that she's comfortable enough to fall asleep next to me. I can't stay awake for long, though. It's the first peaceful sleep I've had all week. A hand on my shoulder tugs me roughly back to consciousness. Chief Swan has quite a firm grip. My eyelids flutter and he turns my shoulder so I'm lying on my back. He looks pissed off, but I guess I would be too if I found some guy in my daughter's bed. "What are you doing here?" The sound and movement makes Bella stir. "I, uh..." "Downstairs." I don't hesitate to obey. The man carries a gun for a living and I'm already on his shit list. Bella's bedroom door shuts behind me. I head for the stairs, but I can still hear the conversation through the door. "What this all about?" I feel bad that Bella is the one being grilled for something we share equal responsibility for. I stop to listen on the upper landing, but I can't hear Bella's reply. 260

"You don't know?" His tone pisses me off, even if he is her dad. He asks her if "things" are "serious" with "that boy." Whatever the fuck that means, in the most condescending terms. Bella answers no and Chief Swan demands to know why I was in her bedroom. "We were just hanging out. We fell asleep." He tells her not to piss on his head and tell him it's raining. "You were just hanging out, all wrapped around each other, and fell asleep?" "Stranger things have happened." Maybe I should reopen the question of Bella's sanity if she's willing to be cheeky with her dad at a time like this. "You're grounded." Bella laughs ­ actually laughs out loud ­ and says that grounding is moot in a remote town like Forks. She should have kept her mouth shut, because the next thing she loses are her phone privileges for talking back. "So where were you last night?" What a strange question to ask. Her tone is light and genuinely interested, like she's not in the middle of being punished. "You're gonna sit up here and think about what you've done," Chief Swan says. Bella's bedroom door opens and I hurry down the stairs. "What are you still doing here?" Chief Swan calls after me. "Go home." I head out the door as quickly as I can, out into the rain. I check my watch and realize that Bella and I were asleep for over an hour. As I dig through my pockets for the car keys I realize I left my photo album upstairs on Bella's floor. Shit. She'll have time to go through the whole thing now, when I'm not around to influence her impressions with an explanation of each photo. It's a three hundred page record of what a pathetic, sick fuck I am. I stop on the sidewalk and consider going back to the house. What's worse, interacting with Bella's pissed off dad or permitting her open access to my photos? A paper airplane to the side of the head interrupts the formation of my mental pros and cons list. I look over to see Bella leaning out her bedroom window. She points to the paper airplane on the lawn and I bend to pick it up. Sorry. He's not usually rude. He fears history will repeat itself. I cross the lawn to stand under her bedroom window. Memories surface of that Shakespeare movie I had to watch in English, and I cringe at the thought of that godawful play. "Can I have my book back?" Bella disappears inside for a moment and comes back with my album. I extend my hands to catch it, but Bella doesn't let go. "You know..." she says thoughtfully. "Don't even think about it." "I'll give it to you at school tomorrow." Bella withdraws the book back into her room. "Just throw it down." "I'll trade you." Bella leaves the window again, and when she comes back and throws a smaller blue book down to me. "See you at school." She closes the window, ending all communication until eight-oclock tomorrow. Her mouthing off means I can't call her and I don't have her email address to bother her in cyberspace. Fucking hell. I look down at what she gave me in place of my photo album: a blue canvas book with Journal embossed in silver italics across the front. Bella handed over her diary? She doesn't strike me as the diary-writing type. It could be considered rude to read this right in front of her window ­ she could be watching ­ but I still flip it open to the first page. Another surprise: instead of Bella's drunk-toddler 261

scrawl, the page lines are filled with very neat cursive. The flyleaf says: This book belongs to Elsja Higgenbotham. If found, please return to... This could be interesting.

262

18. April 29 to May 3

Monday

I get called down to the main office just before lunch. Great. Now I'm probably not going to have time to eat. I trudge over to the administration building and present my pink slip of summons to Mrs. Cope. "They're waiting for you. Third door on the left." She points down the hall, past the principal's office where other administrative offices are kept. I head to the third door and find S. Neil ­ Guidance Counselor written on the nameplate. I bet this has something to do with the electives I requested for next year ­ or rather, didn't request. The registration form is still buried in my locker somewhere. I sort of forgot it in the midst of...stuff. I knock and Mr. Neil calls me in. I step around the door to find that I'm not the only guest in this crowded little office. Charlie is waiting for me too, and the top of Mr. Neil's desk is covered in brochures for counseling programs in our area. "Have a seat, Isabella." Mr. Neil gestures to the only vacant chair in the room. I don't bother to correct him about my name. This will all be over faster if I don't give attitude. Just let them shepherd me into whatever youth group will best satisfy their anxiety, bullshit my way through the system, and come out the other side having lost only a few hours in therapy and gained some freedom. "How are you feeling today, Isabella?" I know the trick he's using. It's the same one that police use to negotiate with hostage takers and people threatening suicide ­ call the person by their name as much as possible to show that complete attention is focused on them and their issues. I hate it. "Hungry." Mr. Neil chuckles at my little 'joke.' "I meant emotionally. How are you coping with school?" "It's alright." I glance at Charlie out of the corner of my eye. He doesn't look happy. Did he expect me to walk in here and pour my soul out to a guy who looks like he should be breaking eggs on the floor of the Quick Stop? "Have you made friends since moving here?" "Yep." "Good friends?" "Very good." They treat me like any other girl, and Edward and I are giving acquaintanceship another try. That's about as good as can be expected on all fronts, given the circumstances. "Your dad and I were having a discussion before you came in." Does he think I'm so stupid I can't figure that out? "We think you could benefit from participating in some form of counseling, given your history." Given my history. I wonder how much Charlie told him. Dad must be here on his lunch break ­ he probably wants to wrap this up quickly so he can get back to the station. "And how long will I have to behave myself before everyone stops looking at me like I'm a problem to be fixed?" They stare at me. "I've been off meds for a year and a half. I've been behaving for eight months. Does this pigeonhole have an exit?" "No one is suggesting that you need to be fixed," Mr. Neil says gently. "Counseling isn't a punishment. We wouldn't suggest it unless we thought it would help you." I hate the way he uses 'we,' like he gave a shit about me before my case was brought to his 263

attention, or like he'll give a shit after I leave this office. It makes him, Charlie, my mom and the school seem like a united front that I can't possibly stand up to by myself. "Whatever you want." Because the reality is that I can't stand up to them alone. By the time I get to the cafeteria the lunch line has died down. I grab something to eat and head for the usual table, which is crowded and noisy. There's only one chair left available ­ between Eric Yorkie and Edward, who has graciously decided to sit here again. There's a hierarchy to the seating arrangement ­ the only person willing to sit next to Edward is Angela. Eric got the adjacent seat because he isn't popular enough to merit a better place in the pecking order. "Where were you?" Edward asks. Angela leans forward to look past him and asks me if everything is okay. "Just a problem with my electives." Angela asks what I'm taking next year. It would be great if I had an actual answer. "Uh...art, and...physics." Edward blurts out: "But you suck at both." "Dude." "I've seen your stick figures. They look like shit." "I bet you'd be really good at abstract art," Angela says in an attempt to smooth over Edward's jackassery. I'm not that fussed. This is just normal Edward. "I can finger paint." I flip the bird at Edward and he casually steals the juice box off my tray. "The art teacher's always stoned, anyway," he says as he unwraps the straw. "You've got to try to fail that class. You're fucked for physics, though." "Some of us actually study for our classes." Edward gives me a look of obvious condescension. "Bella, you're a woman ­ you can't do math." I snatch the juice box back and leave him with the straw. Angela looks like she might be genuinely offended. "No secret what you're taking next year ­ the same courses you'll fail this year." I hold the juice box out of reach as he makes another grab for it. "Music and geography." I slap Edward's hand for getting too close to my box. "Do you want mine?" Angela offers Edward her unopened apple juice, probably just to get us to stop messing around at the table. Edward looks at her like he can't understand why she would offer and says, "No, I'm not thirsty. I just enjoy harassment." I snatch my straw out of his fist while he's distracted with Angela, so he steals my pudding in retaliation. A look of understanding suddenly comes across Angela's face, and she smiles. "You guys are cute." And everything comes to an immediate grinding, screeching halt. Edward and I both freeze. He drops my pudding back on the tray like it's hot and gets up from the table. Angela casts a worried glance after him as he walks away, but I don't turn to look. "Should I not have said anything?" "Don't worry about it." I'll try not to hold the awkwardness against her. She can't have known. I never told her any of it. I leave Angela and the others at the spot outside the cafeteria where the hall diverges into three separate corridors, and head for my locker. Edward appears at my shoulder out of fucking nowhere and 264

says, "Are you really taking art?" I startle and he chuckles at me. "No, I'm not taking art." "What are you taking?" "I never handed in a form." I turn away from him to open my locker, but he just leans against the locker beside mine and continues talking face to face. "Sorry I just took off like that." I play dumb. "You left?" Edward lightly smacks my shoulder and tells me to be serious for a minute. "I didn't mean to be rude." "You weren't." "Did you tell anyone about that dinner in Port Angeles?" He doesn't want anyone to think we're dating. "No. Did you?" "No one in Forks." I pause with my hand on my bio textbook. "What the hell does that mean?" "I mentioned it to a friend back in Seattle. No big deal." I shut my locker and tell him that he better grab his stuff for biology. The bell is due to ring in two minutes. "Can I have my album back?" "No." I walk away. "Why not?" he calls after me. "I'm not done with it yet." Edward's strategy for getting his photos back faster is to tell me about how it's so not worth the time to look at them. He pursues this oh-so-convincing line of reasoning all through the lab, even though I give him every indication that I'm not listening and not about to give that book back any time soon. We bump foreheads over the microscope and Edward accuses me of doing it on purpose. "Let me see." I put a hand to his forehead, pretending to inspect the non-existent lump. Edward lets me because he's an attention whore like that. I flick the spot where I bumped him and steal the eyepiece. "Ow," he complains. "Whiner." Edward elbows me. He's not that irritated; he's still smiling. When I look up from the microscope I find he's stolen my lab form and my answers. "Dude." "What?" He's got his smartass grin on, the lopsided one that makes him squint. His new eyelashes are just long enough to touch when he does it. I snatch my lab form back from under his elbow and tell him to go to hell. "Come with me?" "I'm driving." "The fuck you are." I warm up a piece of leftover chicken when I get home from work, and take it straight upstairs to work on my new pet project. I've only got so much time before Edward stops asking for his photos back and demands them instead, so I have to make the most of my access to that book. Emmett is a very thorough photojournalist. The pictures in this album ­ most of them Polaroids ­ have a definite sense of narrative. He likes the candid shot. He captures people at their thoughtful 265

moments. The story opens with a photo of a sickly, but much healthier Edward sitting in a recliner in the hospital with his dad beside him. The setup of the room is familiar ­ he's at the beginning of a chemo treatment. The insertion point is just below his elbow; he didn't have a central line yet. Edward looks straight into the camera, glaring at his brother for taking pictures. Dr. Cullen looks similarly annoyed, but his posture and forehead reveal anxiety. Flip the page ahead in time by only a day or two, and the recliner is gone. He's in a bed, green in the face and sick as a dog. His arm is splinted to keep him from disturbing the IV connection while he vomits, and the only good Esme can do for him is to bathe his face and neck with a cool cloth. Alice plays cards with a petite bald girl. Esme falls asleep on a waiting room couch. Whole chunks of hair are left behind on the pillow. About the same time that a full bald spot develops on the back of his head, the first hat appears in the album ­ it's the same color as his hair. The narrative moves to the Cullen house. Edward, laid up on the couch. Alice, poised in front of a blender with a scheming smile on her face. Her hair was so long ­ straight down to her waist and black as a crow. One of the pictures was taken through the gap in the bathroom door. Edward is visible in the mirror, setting up swabs and a syringe at the counter. He looks pissed off and his lip is curled back like he was about to shout at Emmett when the shutter closed. His weight loss isn't really noticeable until twenty pages in, during what appears to be his second round of chemo. His cheeks are a little thinner and his shoulders have a habitual hunch. In one of the pictures he's in what looks like a floor lounge, watching TV and quietly ignoring his companion while she vomits into an emesis basin beside him. There's a sweet picture of him and Alice, both sleeping. He's curled up in bed and she's in the chair beside. Their hands rest loosely intertwined on the edge of the mattress. From there Emmett chose to take pictures of all the nursing staff, like yearbook photos. On the white strip of each Polaroid he wrote their name and one memorable thing about them. Laura, likes watermelon. Maggie the Trekkie. JoAnne, brings in cookies. Kim, reads good books. When the yearbook catalogue is over, the narrative resumes at home. Edward is kneeling over a sink with a blood-drenched towel against his nose while Dr. Cullen tries his best to help. Emmett included a companion shot of Edward's bed. Presumably the nosebleed started in his sleep, because his sheets and pillow are soaked. From there the snapshots move to the hospital for a while. There's a nice shot of Alice sitting on her dad's lap, proudly holding out her arms to be photographed. She's got a band-aid and cotton ball on each elbow, and one higher on her shoulder. She must have given blood to her brother after that massive nosebleed. Charlie knocks on my door and I close the album as quickly as possible. I answer the door and tell him there are leftovers in the fridge; I'm not cooking tonight. Charlie doesn't say anything, but he awkwardly hands me a pamphlet for a youth group in Port Angeles: Companions in Christ: the healing power of God. It's held in the community hall of a church in Port Angeles. "We're not religious." Charlie clears his throat. "I know, but it's the closest one. If not that, you'll be going to Seattle." He takes the pamphlet from me and opens it. "They meet in Sundays after services. You'd only have to go one day a week. It shouldn't affect your school." "It's not the whole day is it?" I skim the brochure, but it's sketchy about how long sessions last. At least the program in Phoenix never kept us past the two-hour mark. "I want you to go." And I want to make him happy. "I will."

266

Tuesday

Mike and Jessica have broken up again. What is that, three times this month? They do this shit more often than Lindsay Lohan goes to rehab. Jessica spends the majority of lunch hour crying over what a dick Mike is while Lauren and Angela try to comfort her. I stay out of it to keep myself from laughing ­ Jessica is mainly aggrieved by this breakup because it means she has no one to go to prom with. "Prom is a whole month away. You'll find someone to go with," Angela consoles. Lauren very helpfully points out that Jessica's dress is returnable, like there isn't much hope of finding a date now. "Why don't you just go stag?" The three of them look at me like I'm a weirdo for suggesting it. I guess dates are a social necessity in backward small towns like this. "Maybe Eric will go with you," Lauren says. Jessica starts crying all over again. Thank God I don't dance. I burn my wrist while frying beer batter fish for dinner and exclaim, "Jesus friggin' Christ," without thinking. Dad tells me I better start learning to curb that kind of language. "What if something like that slips out on Sunday?" He gives me a hard look. He's right. Charlie offers to drive me to the session on Sunday. "I said I'd go, and I will." "I didn't mean you wouldn't," he argues. "I just thought you might like some support, or something." Does driving count as parental support? I shrug. "If you really want to." Upstairs, I continue my study of The Narrative of Edward Cullen's Cancer, as I've come to think of it. I flip to where I left off, with the pictures of Alice donating blood. Edward doesn't look much better for having received it. He's got cotton plugs in both nostrils and bruising around his eyes. Not long after that I come across the photo of Esme getting the good news about Alice's donor status. She looks so relieved and overjoyed. On the opposite page there's a shot of Dr. Cullen squeezing his little girl in a bear hug, like he's proud of her for having the right genes. Flip once ­ and Edward looks less than happy. He's on a bed with his knees pulled up and his head in his hands, hunched up as though the news was bad. There's no follow-up photo ­ nothing with his facial expression, or any clue as to why he would have been sad instead of happy. The pictures resume with him in a procedure room, lying on a table for radiation treatment. In subsequent photos the burns are visible on his neck and face. He went through another round of chemo ­ in the recliner this time; Esme cuddled him. The next ten pages of photos aren't very clear. They were taken through the window of an isolation room, so all I can see of Edward and the staff is a vague outline above the glare. He's always lying down. His IV pole is always holding three or more bags of fluid. In the few shots where he's close enough to the camera to be seen clearly, the rash on his hands is dark purple and bandaged in places. There are sores around his mouth and across his cheeks, too. The marrow worked, but it was clearly a hell of a fight.

Wednesday

Edward slides a note my way in biology. Do you have any plans for tonight? I write No and slide the page back to him. Technically I'm grounded, but I can tell Charlie that I got called in to work. 267

Do something with me tonight? What? Surprise. I look over at him and he offers a shy smile. Do acquaintances do surprises? I don't even particularly like surprises. We'll stay in Forks this time? Yes. I agree to his surprise. I have nothing better to do. As we leave the lab at the end of class Edward says, "I'll pick you up." "When?" "Five-thirty." He leaves before I can ask anything else. I suppose I should count myself lucky that he didn't ask about the photo album again. Edward shifts the car into park and I ask him if he's serious. I figured he was taking me to his house to hang out, but we're at Forks General instead. He gives me this sweet smile that I just know is a precursor to one of his attempts at persuasion. "I was hoping you'd agree to keep me company." "So why didn't you just ask that?" "I didn't think you would." Edward points out that the public library is only a few hundred yards down the block from the hospital. I can go there and get a ride home from him later if I decide not to keep him company. "Just ask next time," I tell him as I step out of the car. "There are worse things than being told no." The nurse in the dialysis clinic is a very petite Asian woman with butterflies on her scrub shirt. She doesn't say much, other than to give her patient orders: Lift your arm. We'll take it standing now. Edward seems very conscious of the fact that I'm watching. He won't look at me. When the nurse asks him to open his shirt so she can access his central line, I see the worried look on his face and duck behind the curtain before he has to ask. Nurse Butterfly works fast. It only takes her half an hour to set up all the tubing and program the machine after taking Edward's blood pressure. When I return to the cubicle the machine is humming softly and Edward is lounging with a surgical drape over one shoulder. "Is that for my benefit?" I point to the drape. "I don't think it's gross. It's not the first central line I've seen." Edward ignores my question completely and offers me an orange from his backpack. Before I can say yes he tosses me one anyway. It's a fat navel orange, soft and juicy. I pull back the peel and cleave off a piece for each of us. Edward just sucks on his, extracting the juice and taking as little of the pulp as possible. He can't eat much during dialysis without getting sick, so he leaves most of the orange to me. "Are you in a talking mood?" he asks. What the hell kind of question is that? "Uh..." Edward reaches over to his backpack on the side table and pulls out Grandma's journal, the one I gave him on Sunday. The edges of about a hundred PostIt notes poke out around the pages, and I can't help but laugh. "If only you read your English homework so thoroughly." I move to take the journal and Edward withdraws it from my reach. He opens it to the first PostIt note with the seriousness of a lawyer and asks, "Who is Pat?" He makes it sound like he's asking for a murder confession. "My granddad." Grandma kept a diary very sporadically. That one journal lasted her nearly twenty years. The earliest entries were made before I was even born. 268

"He's not in here much." "He died when I was two." "How?" "Surgical complications. He had pleurisy from industrial exposure to arsenic." "The hell?" "Is that a real question?" Edward rolls his eyes and grudgingly flips to his next PostIt. "Did she often speak French?" "Just when she felt like singing." There are occasional chunks of the journal written in Grandma's native dialect, even though she made a point to rarely use it after she immigrated. She was part of a generation that was determined to assimilate as fast as possible. "She didn't teach you?" "I can understand it better than I can speak it." I hold out a hand for the book and he gives it to me this time. Grandma's French wasn't exactly 'proper' anyway. I can understand one word in three, so I piece together the sentences as best I can. It's a description of going to Forks to see "the baby," dated September 18. "My parents took their sweet time naming me." Edward finds that funny. I ask him if his parents inflicted him with an outdated name to honor someone. His cheeks turn a little bit pink. "Irrelevant." He snatches the journal back and turns to the next PostIt. "Why does she use gardenia as an adjective?" If one thing is clear about Grandma's journal, it's that she didn't write it for others to read. She's got her own shorthand and acronyms and she leaves out the obvious details simply because they're obvious. Like the line: Saw that movie I've been wanting to see. Satisfying ending. Good music. And that's it. She knows what she's referring to ­ what does it matter that no one else does? It's her diary. Edward seems to have picked out every one of Grandma's gaps and inconsistencies, and he questions them relentlessly. "Was she flighty?" he asks. "She was very picky about what was worthy of her attention." Grandma was obsessed with her garden and good books, but couldn't have cared less about TV. She referred to our local newspaper as the Horseshit Gazette and privately believed that people who talk to their pets in public are deeply unhappy and unwilling to admit it. "Who's Renee?" "My mom." Edward's eyes widen at my answer and he remarks on how much scathing commentary there is on Renee in the journal. "They didn't really get along," I tell him. "Mom's kind of a free spirit. She can never just pick a thing and stick with it, she has to try everything. Grandma thought she had no sense of direction. Renee is a bit flighty." "Did they fight a lot?" "Sometimes. Eventually they just stopped talking, because everything led to a disagreement. Grandma always seemed disappointed in her." "Were you?" "What?" "Disappointed in her?" "I love her quirks, but sometimes I wish she was a little more decisive." Edward flips to his next PostIt and turns the page around to face me. "Why? Just why?" Grandma also liked to occasionally amuse herself by sketching little cartoons. The one in question is of a Betty Boop-like pinup girl in a negligee that, for all intents and purposes, is see-through. "What?" It's a private journal, after all. She can draw pictures as dirty as she likes in there. 269

"I kept count," Edward says. He skims a few pages and pinches a chunk of the binding between two fingers. The chunk represents the space of about five years. "She had six boyfriends that I can count." "I wouldn't call them boyfriends." Edward stares at me with unabashed surprise. It's clear from the diary that Grandma had an active sex life before and after becoming a widow, but that doesn't paint a complete picture of her relationships. "What? She was in her late sixties. She wasn't looking to settle down again. Old people don't give a shit about labels ­ they're much more willing to go for no-strings-attached affairs." "And you knew what she was doing?" "Well not the mechanics of it. I was only a kid. But I met some of her companions. They were nice guys." "What, she just casually introduced you to her fuck-friends?" I laugh without meaning to. "It's not like sex is bad. It's natural. So Grandma was getting laid, big deal. She was a beautiful old lady." "Yeah, but...gross." "Your family doesn't talk about sex? We used to talk about it all the time." "In detail?" "She and Mom didn't go out of their way to tell me, but if I asked a question they'd give me a full and honest answer." I had a lot of questions around the time the school board decided to supply my class with inadequate and confusing sex ed. I asked Mom and she panicked a little bit at my abrupt inquiry. She tried to convince me that sex is magical and beautiful and that flowers were somehow involved, and that only people who are really in love do it. So I went to Grandma to see what it was really all about, and she gave me the insert-tab-A-into-slot-B info. No flowers, just skin. She made it sound like something a person would actually engage in willingly, and when Mom calmed down from the fact that her baby was asking about sex, she was pretty honest about the whole thing too. We didn't get into Grandma's views on sexual politics until a few months before she died, sitting at her kitchen table under a haze of blue smoke. I'd casually used the word 'slut' in conversation and she told me to watch my tongue. "Men think they own sex," she said. "They demand that a woman be sexy, but condemn her for having sex." She made a sound of disgust in the back of her throat and ashed her cigarette. "But worst of all," she said, "are the women who condemn other women for the same reason." The drape over Edward's shoulder starts to slide down as he flips pages. I move it higher and Edward practically slaps my hand away. "Sorry. Reflex." He looks so embarrassed over such a small thing. "Don't worry about it." The words don't really mean anything. He's going to worry about it anyway. He's flustered and awkward and fidgeting with the drape. "I didn't see anything." "'Kay." "I didn't." He looks at me and for a moment I think he's going to say something, but then he turns back to the book and asks me what creosote is. "It's an oil. You use it on wood." It's nine-thirty by the time we leave the dialysis clinic. Edward asks if we can make a quick detour on our way out and we end up in pediatric oncology. Maybe he's feeling nostalgic. Edward approaches the nurse at triage and she reminds him that visiting hours are over. "I know. I just wanted to see if Jane was discharged yet." 270

"Yeah, she was." Edward smiles without happiness and says that's great news. The nurse doesn't look happy. We turn to go and she calls out, "Edward..." That's a loaded tone. There's something she wants to say, but probably can't because of confidentiality law. She settles for trying to communicate with a pressing look, and Edward frowns. I can't stand the tension. "Was she discharged via the morgue?" Edward flinches, but the nurse lets out a sigh. "No." The unspoken part of her sentence rings loud and clear: Not yet. It's a quiet ride down in the elevator. Edward doesn't say anything as we leave the hospital and cross the lot to his car. I ask him who Jane is and he says, "Just this girl I know." "Does she have leukemia too?" Edward doesn't answer right away. We get in the car but he doesn't start the engine. He just sits there and blows out a long sigh. "No. It's all through her gut. It's in her liver and pancreas now." She's fucked. Once it's in the liver, it's over in the blink of an eye. Edward knows this, and it clearly upsets him. "Were you guys a thing? A little romance on the ward?" I smile to show that I'm joking, but I'm not good at making light. "No. It's not like that." Edward looks over at me with a drawn expression. "She's only sixteen. She's my sister's age and she's going to die." I reach over and take his hand. His skin is cold, but not unpleasantly so. Edward blows out another sigh and looks out the window, trying to maintain composure. He starts the engine and says we should get going. I turn the car off. Edward gives me a what the hell? look. I take him by the shoulder of his shirt and pull him toward me, into the hug he obviously needs but won't ask for. His arms readily wind around my ribs and hold me in a vice grip. His head rests heavily on my shoulder. "Do you really want to go home?" Edward shakes his head mournfully. He tightens the hug even further, but I resist the urge to complain about lack of airflow. He needs this. I scan the dashboard as best I can without moving away from him. It takes me a while, but eventually I find the button I'm looking for. I hold it down and the sunroof begins to slide back. Edward lifts his head to see what's going on. "Why are you opening that?" "The stars are out." I feel around the side of my seat for a lever or button to move the backrest. "It's under the seat," he tells me, and shifts his own backrest. It's like watching the night sky on a TV through the square in the ceiling. The stars are out as much as they ever are in Forks. Wisps of cloud continually swirl across the sky, blocking some stars and letting others shine through. For once it isn't threatening rain, but the air smells damp with this morning's rainfall. "I'll give your album back tomorrow." "Thanks," he says dully. "You can take your book back." I'll grab it from him later, when he drops me off at home. He asks me why I gave it to him. "So you'd let me keep the album a little while longer." "But why her diary?" "It seemed fair. We traded personal records." "But when I read it ­" I reach over and lay a hand on his shoulder. "Edward, there's no moral to the story. It's a diary, not a fairytale. You can't read too much into it." "I thought you wanted me to know something about her." 271

I shrug. "I didn't know what you'd do with it." "So it was just collateral? You didn't care if I read it?" "Pretty much. It's sweet that you did read it, though." "You looked through my photos." It's almost a question, but he tone is flat and lifeless. "Yeah." I look at him out the corner of my eye. "Why were you sad when Alice's donor results came back?" "I wasn't sad," he answers in the same muted tone. His words come slowly. "I was overwhelmed." He swallows and it sounds loud in the quiet of the car. "I cried like a fucking baby." I roll onto my side. Never mind the night sky, I want to watch him. Edward knows I'm doing it, but he doesn't even glance at me. He looks straight ahead through the sunroof with a passive but unhappy look on his face. Edward's hand leaves his side and reaches across the gap between our seats. He grabs the first thing he can find on me ­ my jacket collar ­ and pulls. His scrawny arms are stronger than they look. He tows me forward until my head is practically level with his shoulder. "Edward...?" He folds me into a hug and sighs mournfully. "How are you the only one who fucking gets it?" he murmurs. "I don't understand you. How is it you understand me?" "You understand me better than you think you do." "No, I don't. I don't get you at all." He sounds genuinely troubled by this. "I wouldn't like you if you didn't." I try to lift my head but Edward holds me fast. "Or are you talking about what I did to my grandma?" "All of it." "You're never going to understand all of it. I don't, and I live with myself." "But--" "Hey." I pat his shoulder. "You've given me things I didn't even know I needed, okay? Give yourself a little more credit. You're a good friend." His arms tighten a little further around me. It's difficult in this position, but I try to hug him back just as hard. I think Edward secretly enjoys a good squeeze. "I should take you home," he murmurs. It is almost ten-o-clock on a school night. "Where the hell did the evening go?" Edward loosens his arms but doesn't push me back to my own chair. "I'm sorry I wasted your time tonight." "I didn't mean it like that. Time flies when you're having fun." "You had fun?" "Yeah." "In a dialysis clinic?" "Yeah." "With me?" "Yes, you were there." Edward gives me a sideways look and shakes his head. "You're incredible." He sits up then, shifting his backrest up to driving position, and I move back to the passenger seat. We turn on the radio for the drive home to fill the silence. There's nothing much to say, now. I switch it off when he turns onto my street ­ one last opportunity to ask a question, while he's still in the mood to answer them. "You spent Christmas in the hospital?" "Yeah. I was discharged just before New Years." He pulls up in front of my house and parks along the curb. "It freaked my dad out that I was so sick around Christmas." 272

"Why?" "He works in medicine. He's seen a lot of sick people and old people hang on for just one last family holiday, and then give up." "He thought you would?" Edward doesn't answer that. "You know, it was only a day before you moved here that I got the okay to stop wearing a mask in public." "Did you write 'fuck you' on the front of it?" Edward chuckles a little. "I should have." I get out of the car while we're still on a happy note. He thanks me for coming with him and I thank him for caring enough. "See you at school." "Yeah." I step out of the car and he calls my name before I can shut the door. "What?" I lean down to look at him. He's got this puzzled expression, like he's not sure how to phrase what he wants to say. "What's the playlist for tonight?" I smile, because he still wants to exchange music even after we've spent the whole afternoon together. "'Call and Answer,' BNL." Edward smirks. "'Hurts So Good,' Mellencamp." "'You Let Me Down,' Joel Plaskett." "'I Go Blind,' 54-40." "Goodnight, Edward." "Goodnight." Charlie is in the kitchen when I go inside, making a bag of microwave popcorn. He asks me how work went and I tell him it was fine. "Someone left a message for you." He nods to the phone. I dial into the answering machine and wait for the tone. The message begins: "Hi, um, I got this number from Alice, sooooo if you don't know who Alice Cullen is just hang up and ignore this message." Silence. "Still there? 'Kay, well my dumbfuck friend ­ you probably call him Edward or some other civilized variant ­ hasn't been returning my messages, so I don't know if he fucked things up with you or not ­ and he's a total idiot if he did; you sound like a cool chick ­ but anyway I wanted to invite you to a show in Seattle. It's this gig at a place called Connelly's; couple bands performing and shit. Let me know if you want to come and I'll get you in, no cover. I'm... curious about you." Holy fucking rambler. I don't trust the way she says 'curious.' What the hell did Edward tell her? "Oh, my name's Kate. Shoulda mentioned that. Call me back whenever, and if you're still talking to Edward tell that little bitch that even kids with Down's can answer a fucking text message." The machine beeps and the message comes to a stop. I think I might like Kate.

Thursday

Grounding really is a useless punishment, especially in Forks and especially when it doesn't apply to my friends in La Push. Charlie thinks nothing of letting me go visit Jacob. I have a feeling he's only going to enforce my sentence if he thinks I'm setting myself up for a relapse into dumbfuckery. 273

We end up on the floor of Jake's garage with a notepad and calculator, trying to figure out a halfway decent budget for this bike. My first paycheck comes in next week, and some of Jake's ads for used car parts have been getting nibbles, if not bites, so we might see some cash from that soon. "I kinda want to set a deadline for this," Jake says. "Time-to-beat, kind of thing." Considering what the bike needs and our fluctuating cash flow, we set the deadline at a very scary July 30th. It might not be ready to ride to Arizona by then, but at least it'll run ­ hopefully. "We should plan to get away at the end of the summer. Once the bike's in good running condition we can save for gas and food." "We could always road trip in the Rabbit," he says, just in case I get my hopes up. I tell him my plan to ride back on my own bike, regardless of how we get to Phoenix. I want to bring Kyla to Forks. I miss her, even if it's only good riding weather a few months of the year. Jake chuckles. "I thought your dad was happy you weren't riding that thing anymore." Charlie has a strong dislike of motorcycles. He doesn't like risks. That's why he lives in a small town in Washington, never tried to get his wife back after she left him, does the same thing every weekend and always orders the same food at The Lodge. He's a creature of controlled habit. "Let him kick me out for it," I say with a shrug. "I'll be eighteen soon enough." "You know, before you moved here he told my dad you were a wild one. I thought Charlie was full of it, but now I'm starting to see what he means." "Don't look too closely. You'll spot horns." When I get back to cell reception on the drive home, my phone goes haywire on the dashboard with alerts for missed calls and texts. Fucking hell. I pull over to answer it, just in case it's an emergency, and find they're from Edward. I guess you're volunteering tonight, if you're cell's off, is the most recent text. Before that he sent Call me, please, and You didn't give back my album. Shit. I forgot it. The album is still sitting in my desk drawer, under a box of tampons to keep Charlie from snooping. I leave my truck running in the driveway and dash inside to get the book. It's not a broken promise if I give it to him today. I slip it into my backpack as I head back downstairs and Charlie asks where I'm going at nine-o-clock at night. "Gotta return a library book. It's overdue." He lets me go without a word, and it makes me wonder. I pause on the threshold and call into the living room, "I made a study date after school tomorrow." "Yeah?" "Yeah, for biology." Charlie comes to the hall with a disgruntled expression on his face. "And you can't get your work done in class hours? You have spend extra time and make an appointment with that kid?" I give him a tight smile and start to close the door behind me. "I won't be gone long." Turns out I'm not really grounded. I'm just not allowed to see Edward. When I get to the Cullen house, Alice answers the door. She's wearing a Washington Quidditch Tournament 2008 t-shirt and pajama pants. I expect her to turn me away at the door, given how I spoke to her last time we met, but she holds out her arms for a hug of all things. "Uh...'kay." I give her the hug and apologize for making her cry. "You were mad at him, not me, right?" "Yeah." "Then we're cool. Just remind me not to ever piss you off." She turns with a giggle and tows me 274

inside by the hand. "I came to give Edward's photos back." "Oh, great," she chirps. "He's asleep already, but I'll make sure he knows you dropped it off." She rocks back on her heels and asks if I want hot cocoa. "Nah, I don't want to keep you up." Alice rolls her eyes, "It's nine-thirty," and goes to the kitchen to turn on the stove. Alice shows promise as a food scientist. She figured out Edward's favorite milkshakes, and she has a very precise method for mixing the chocolate powder and milk so it doesn't come out chunky or flaky. My mug is human sized. Hers looks like something out of Brobdignag. I set the photo album on the kitchen island. "I think it's really cool what you did, shaving your head and all." Alice beams. "Thanks. I raised nearly eight thousand to do it," she says proudly. "I didn't tell him I was doing it beforehand. It was a surprise." She takes my hand again and pulls my away from the kitchen, up the stairs to her room. Her little legs have to scurry to set a brisk walking pace. Walking into Alice's bedroom is like walking into an art gallery. Every single inch of the walls and most of the ceiling is papered with posters. They're squished so close together that none of the wall is visible in between. Most of them are pictures of Harry Potter characters, but Justin Beiber has his section of wall space, and so does Selena Gomez. Too bad her brother's musical taste hasn't rubbed off on her. I'd gladly put a stamp of approval on her Jagged Little Pill poster, though. Alice skips over to her bookshelf and comes back with an orange vinyl photo album. She proudly shows me the photos of the event where she shaved her head. She did it in what looks like a high school auditorium, up on stage with hundreds of people watching. "It was a contest," she said. "Em and I organized it at our old high school. We figured the people who actually knew Edward would be inclined to donate more. The two people who donated the most got to cut my hair." The photos show Alice's balding occurring in two stages: first, a girl cut off her long ponytail. There's a shot of her holding it up proudly. Then, a guy used to electric razor to shave the rest clean off. The whole thing got people really pumped, from the look of it. In one photo she's posing, sans hair, next to a giant get well card with about a thousand signatures on it. "Mom and Dad didn't know we were doing it, either," she says. "We told them we were visiting Rosalie." There's a nice shot of her and Emmett in the car, relishing the scheme and their success. "What did they think?" "They were shocked." Alice absentmindedly touches her hair. "But they were really proud of us." "Edward must have been, too." "Not right away." Alice flips ahead to the page she wants. It's a picture of her and Edward in what looks like a hospital floor lounge. Edward sits in a green recliner with an IV pole parked next to him. Alice sits on the armrest with an arm around her brother's neck, posing for the picture. She is completely bald, except for a faint shadow across her skin that hints at hair beginning to grow. Alice has a grin on, but Edward's face is totally blank. "He didn't like it that I did that." "Why not?" "I think he really liked my hair and how girly it made me." Alice shrugs. "He used the word 'ruined,' if I remember right." Alice flips the page to the next photo. This one was taken from behind the recliner and to the left, and it doesn't look like Alice or Edward knew the picture was being taken. Not much of them is visible, but Alice is on his lap instead of on the armrest and their arms are wrapped around each other's shoulders. 275

"He was pretty upset, actually. We thought Mom was gone at that point." We both look up at the click of a door opening down the hall. It's at the far end, near the library. Alice shelves her album just as Edward comes within view of her bedroom door, bleary eyed and shuffling his feet. "I thought you were asleep?" she says. Edward ignores her question and speaks to me: "I heard your truck outside. I thought you'd come up." "I didn't want to disturb you." "She brought your photos back." Alice steps forward and gives her brother a hug. "You look tired." "I should go." He doesn't need to be kept up by a late-night visitor. Alice gently tugs at his waist from within the hug, trying to move him back to his room. "No, stay," he says to me. If I still had any doubt, the worried look on Alice's face tells me that staying isn't a good idea. I put a hand on the back of Edward's shoulder and gently usher him along the hall, back to his room. "Okay, but not long." Edward's shoulders sink a little, but he doesn't complain. Alice bullies him back into bed and graciously leaves us alone to say goodnight. "What's the playlist for tonight?" "Whatever helps you fall asleep fastest." I switch off the bedside lamp and Edward sighs in the darkness. "I tried calling you." "I know." "Were you volunteering?" "I was in La Push. Shitty cell reception." "Oh." He doesn't sound happy. "Did you have fun?" "I did. Got my weekly fix of motorcycles." "Show me a picture of your bike sometime," he says. "I don't believe you drive a Harley." My eyes are beginning to adjust to the dark. I can just make out his teasing smile. "Fine, I'll show you." The back of Edward's hand brushes my leg as he feels for my hand in the dark. "Will you stay a while? I'm not tired, really." I laugh and tell him he's a shitty liar. "Come on, Swan." I let go his hand and walk around to the other side of the bed. He falls asleep faster if he's being touched, anyway. I sit on the edge of the mattress and rub circles between his shoulder blades. Edward sighs. "Do you want music?" "No," I say softly. "Just sleep." It takes only a few minutes for his breathing to slow with sleep. I keep my hand on him a while longer, until he starts to make that snuffling sound, and I know that he's asleep. It's not quite a snore, that snuffling. Edward just twitches his nose in his sleep. I circle the bed to collect my backpack off the floor. My eyes have fully adjusted to the dark now, and I can see the innocent expression he lets show in sleep. His lips are slightly parted ­ I can hear the breath sliding over his teeth. I consider taking his hat off for him, but he's touchy about keeping it on, so I leave it. Then I think of how if I'd met the healthy Edward Cullen, we probably wouldn't be as close as we are. He wouldn't have given me the time of day, and I would have thought he wasn't worth my attention. I certainly wouldn't have ever gone to dinner with him, kissed him, or told him about Phoenix. This is a strange thing we've got going on, he and I. 276

I kind of miss kissing him. His enthusiasm was flattering, and it never felt like a means to an end. And he had such soft lips. Those lips close now as he swallows in his sleep. I have a guilty thought, that it would be nice to kiss him again, but I hold onto it. We're in friendship limbo ­ lips off limits. But he's asleep. He would never know. Very softly, I kiss Edward's relaxed lips. His skin is warm with sleep, and even though he's too far under to respond, it feels nice. I pull away carefully, wary of waking him, but then his mouth twitches. Edward smiles in his sleep.

Friday

Two of Jake's mufflers sold on CraigsList. I drive down to La Push after school to drop them off, and Charlie doesn't say a word. It's a nice day out. The sun is shining as much as it ever does in Forks, and the temperature is high enough that I don't need a jacket. Jake is a little more enthusiastic about the weather. When I get to the Black house he's raking clumps of dead, wet leaves away from the shed walls ­ with his shirt off. He knew I was coming and couldn't bother to get dressed? Then I get the sinking feeling that he's trying to impress me. I get out of my truck and he sets down his rake. Jake tries to give me a hug but I take a step back and gesture to the truck bed and his car parts. He wants to put the money from the sale toward new tires for the bike. The ones already on it are completely bald. "Sounds good." I can't help looking at him. He's still got some of that adolescent gangliness, but mostly he's long bones and well-shaped muscles. But it's odd ­ he has absolutely no hair on his chest, not even below his navel or around his nipples. Then I start wondering if he's vain enough to shave it like a swimmer or model, or if it's just genetic. Maybe it's a racial thing, some with more body hair than others. Suddenly I wonder what Edward looks like under his shirt. I bet he doesn't have hair (at the moment) either. Jake catches me looking and smirks. "See something you like?" "You just remind me of someone I know." He doesn't like the sound of that. "Yeah? Who?" "Doesn't matter." Jake pokes my cheek and chuckles. "You're blushing." I am fucking not God damn it... "You got a crush I don't know about?" "If you don't know about it, there's a reason." I nod to the car parts on the ground and tell him to let me know if anything else sells. I make my excuses to get back to Forks ­ I have plans; homework; anything. I just don't want to be around Jake when he's half naked and clearly trying to tempt me. I park in front of the house, get out of my truck, and stand there leaning against the door. I don't want to go in yet. I can see the flicker on the living room window that means Charlie has the TV on already. He'll ask me how Jake is and I'll have to lie to him. All that stretches in front of me is a night of cooking dinner and doing homework. My phone vibrates in my pocket and even if it's Jessica calling to bitch about Mike I'll take it. But it's not a call, it's a text message. Bored. Wuu2? 277

Absolutely nothing. Would your dad kill me if I came over? Yeah, Charlie probably would. But then he'd feel bad about it, because of the whole cancer thing. Meet me at the park? 20 mins. I get back in my truck, smirking at the absurdity of it all. You know, for barely being friends, you're being pretty friendly. His answering text makes me smile: Shut up, I miss you. He could have said he was bored or had nothing better to do, or wanted a favor from me, but he didn't. He misses me. So what the fuck happened to not being friends?

278

19. May 3 to 10

Friday

I get to the park before Bella. It's just a square plot of land next to the library with a swing set and a sandbox. I take a seat on the bench across from the swings to wait. It's almost dinner hour, so the park is empty of children. I watch the swings swaying on their chains and wonder if Bella would ever let me do something storybook stupid like push her on them. Probably not. I'm startled out of my imagination by the thump of Bella's foot landing next to me on the bench. She climbs over the backrest instead of just walking around and drops down next to me. "Do I have to teach you how to use a bench?" Bella gives me a dry look and says, "Are you sure you're qualified? You can barely drive standard, can you really handle a bench?" "I can too drive standard." "Don't think I didn't notice how the shifter grinded after you drove my truck." "You're so full of shit." Bella takes a piece of gum out of her pocket and puts it in her mouth. I thank her for offering me some and she says, "Open your mouth." I'm not dumb enough to fall for that one. Emmett spit his gum into my mouth when I was ten, and once is enough. Bella offers me a hard mint instead. I smile. It's a little bit flattering that she carries these around in her pockets for me. I bet she carried them for Elsie too, before she killed her. "So you were bored?" "Shitless." "My dad is sending me back to group therapy." "Shit," I say, because she sounds unhappy about it. But really I'm thinking that it's probably a good thing for her to get some help. "It gets worse." "What?" More antidepressants? Suicide watch? "It's held in a church." She makes a noise of disgust and rolls her eyes. I take it she's not religious. The subject has never come up, but I don't want to make any assumptions. "Do you pray?" Does she fear she's going to hell for killing grandma? She looks at me with an expression of gentle scolding. "That's an extremely personal question, Edward." If I didn't already know she was serious, her use of my given name would have done it. "Is the subject of religion altogether off limits?" Because I'm curious now, damn it. "I hear your mom and brother go to Mr. Weber's church." "You heard? You were just randomly talking about my family?" "Small towns." She smiles. "Makes you miss the privacy of Seattle, doesn't it?" "Ironic, isn't it, that the more surrounded we are by people, the more isolated we become." "That's not irony, that's human nature. We're hard-wired not to be able to visualize any group of humans greater than two hundred, the size of the natural herd." Are we hard-wired to put each other out of our misery, too? "You sound incredibly pretentious when you channel Darwin." "Shut up or I'll help you de-evolve." Bella pushes herself off the bench and goes over to the swings. 279

For a moment I think that I might actually get to push her on a swing, but she stands on the seat instead of sitting and pulls on the chains, rocking the swing side-to-side instead of back-and-forth. "We had swings like this at the park by my house in Phoenix," she says. "But they weren't used much. Teenagers used to wind them up around the top bar until they were unreachable." I stand in front of her with my hands in her pockets, watching her rock. "Is that why you don't know how to use it properly?" "I loved doing this when I was a kid." She pulls harder on the left chain, widening her arc. "I would pretend I was a surfer." She smiles. "Then I saw the ocean and tried it. The whole thing is grossly overrated." "Do you want a push?" Bella gives me a look that reads What do you think? That's a no. I grab the chains and halt her motion. "What the fuck?" I climb on with her and she makes a little squeak of surprise as the swing tips with my added weight. I'm slightly heavier than she is, and the swing lists to my side so she has to lean back to keep from falling into me. "Lower your hands on the chain," she says with a laugh. "Your center of gravity is too high." I slide my hands down half a foot and our balance evens out a little more. "Happy?" Bella shifts her right foot forward and pulls her left one back, deliberately jolting the seat so I have to scramble to readjust. I jolt her right back but she bends her knees to stay on. She gives the left chain a tug, and we're both destabilized by the side-to-side rock. An equally hard tug on both chains stops the rock and shakes the seat. Bella is laughing. She loves this. I lower my hands on the chains and bend my knees, angling the seat so far that she gives another squeak of surprise. Her feet are practically on the edge, trying to stay balanced. Her arms shake with the effort of trying to hold herself up on flimsy chains. If she let go right now she would fall forward on me. I hold it for a few seconds, and then let up. The swing moves back and forth with proper balance while Bella catches her breath. "You are such a shit." "You enjoyed that." She did. She's still smiling. Bella just rolls her eyes at me. Standing upright and balanced like this, our fronts are almost touching. She's right there, and it occurs to me that I could just bend down and kiss her right now. What? Nothing. That's what I thought. Maybe just her reddened cheek... Bella steps off the swing and adjusts her jacket around her shoulders. "Come with me on Sunday?" "What?" I step off the swing. "Charlie wants to drive me. I'm not looking forward to two silent hours in a car with him on top of therapy. Please come with me." "You want, like, moral support or something?" You should support her getting help. It won't change anything. She'll be happier. And what'll I be? Bella gives me the eye and says, "You're pretty fucked up yourself. You might fit in to Group better 280

than you'd think." "I'm not going to gush to a bunch of strangers." "Pfft. Neither am I." If she's going to lie again what's the fucking point? Help her. Encourage her. She did it for you. "One condition." "What?" "You come with me to dialysis again." "That's it?" "You come to my unpleasant shit, I'll go to yours." Bella considers that for a moment before holding out her hand. "Deal." We shake on it and her fingers are cool from holding the chain. "Let's walk," she says. "I'm cold." We head down the sidewalk with no specified destination in mind, in the direction of what constitutes "downtown" Forks. Almost everything is closed for the night, with the exception of The Lodge, the IGA and Newton's Outfitters. "You really like working for Mike's family?" "It's a paycheck. Better than bagging groceries at the IGA." I tell her my sister is thinking of doing just that and Bella tells me to offer Alice her condolences. "So has Newton raped you yet?" Bella laughs out loud, and I get the sense that I'm missing part of the joke. "I raped him," she says. I'm definitely missing part of the joke, but I play along and smile anyway. "What happened?" Bella shakes her head. "I don't fuck and tell." I can't help but wonder if she did fool around with him, and the thought disgusts me. Why would she even joke about it? Does she like him? Unlikely, considering how often she speaks condescendingly of him. But she talks to me that way too... And she liked me. Has she moved on to Mike fucking Newton? You say 'moved on' like there was something to move from. There was. Well, that was quick of her. Maybe she's only fooling around with him because we went nowhere. Right. Because Mike Newton is an obvious second choice to Cancer Boy. Maybe she just felt sorry for me and mistook it for affection. "Didn't he and Jess break up?" "Again." "Was it because of something you did?" I give her a sideways look and Bella rolls her eyes. "Calling me a home-wrecker now? I didn't do anything with Mike. If Jess isn't just talking out her ass, he's not worth it." She makes an obvious hand gesture. So she just casually talked to Jessica about Mike's dick? "Is that what girls talk about in the locker room?" "No, we compare breast size and help each other shower." She elbows me teasingly. I elbow her back. "Change of subject," she announces. "I got an interesting call earlier this week." "Yeah?" "Kate said to tell you to answer her messages. Been dodging an old friend from Seattle?" Oh fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. How the hell did Kate get Bella's number? 281

"You talked to Kate?" "She left a message. She's quite charming." "What did she say?" "Well," Bella begins dramatically. "She called you a retarded dumbfuck and invited me to a show in Seattle." "No." "What do you mean 'no'? You are a dumbfuck." "You're not going." "I hadn't decided," she replies stiffly. I put a hand on her arm and try to make her see reason. "The gig's at Connelly's ­ it's a rough crowd. And it's a metal band ­ you don't even listen to metal." "Alright, now I just want to go because you don't want me to." "Bella." "Are you going?" I wasn't gonna. "Yes. We'd have to put up with each other all night and--" "Good. We can carpool." Fucking hell. "You're being deliberately difficult." "Duh." Goddamn it she drives me crazy. She can't just trust me when I say it's not a good idea and do what she's told? "You're not gonna try and act like my dad all night, are you?" "Blow me." Bella stops on the sidewalk and drops to her knees. Sweet Jesus. She looks up at me expectantly, challenging. "Well? Whip it out, Cullen." Part of me wants to do it, just to be a smartass. But the saner half of me thinks this is a horrible idea. So I stand there. After a few seconds of nothing Bella stands up and smirks smugly. "That tiny, is it?" Fuck, there is absolutely no good comeback to that. What am I supposed to say? Actually, it's so massive that were I to bludgeon you across the face with it, you would lose teeth. Right, that'll go over well. I stand there for a few seconds after she walks away, working on that whole inner peace thing so I'm not tempted to fucking strangle her. I wonder if she'd be any good at-- Shut the fuck up. I follow Bella. She doesn't slow down to wait for me. When I catch up with her I throw my arms around her shoulders in a bear hug and make her promise to be careful if I agree to go to Seattle with her. "Fine." "Good." "You can let go now." "Nah." She pisses me off, I piss her off. That's just how this works. Bella turns her head to look up at me over her shoulder. "Kate knows we're not ....right?" The gap in her sentence is fucking loud. "Did she say something?" "Does she think that?" "I'll talk to her." "Okay. Thanks. 'Cause this isn't a date." 282

"Clearly." "Good." "Good." I resist the sudden urge to kiss her temple. How can she piss me off this bad and still be so appealing? "What's that look?" "What look?" "That look you just had." "No idea what you're talking about." I let her out of my arms. She's about to round on me when I change the subject, "So what time is this sob-fest on Sunday?" Bella huffs. "We leave at eight." I regret my deal with her already. Who wants to get up early on the weekend?

Saturday

I wake up from a nap to find that it's two-o-clock. My phone is still in my hand and the alert for a new message is flashing. I tried to call Bella all morning, and texted when she didn't answer. All her replies were vague and deferential. Later. Not now. Can't talk atm. Her latest message isn't any more comforting: Crazy busy. Having fun. And my mood takes a nosedive. She's having fun, is she? And it was too much trouble to invite me along? I get out of bed and shuffle downstairs. Emmett has the afternoon off work. Maybe I can talk him into playing videogames. At the very least I think I can get Alice to hang out with me. I enter the kitchen to find that the house is a lot more crowded than I first suspected. Alice is at the island counter with Bella, who is teaching my sister how to carve a chicken. The bird smells fantastic and is roasted to that perfectly golden color. At the table, Emmett sits with him and his really hot girlfriend. Her name escapes me, but she's telling Emmett a story about a great Mexican restaurant in Port Angeles. Alice takes her freshly carved, extremely juicy slices of hot chicken and prepares sandwiches for everyone. Bella sets a small morsel of dark meat aside and puts the rest of the chicken carcass in a stockpot. I think she's going to make soup from that. The prospect of fresh chicken soup excites me, but then I remember that it takes hours to make, and everyone is just sitting down to lunch now. I walk around the island and congratulate Alice on the chicken. "Did Bella show you how to do that?" "Yup." Alice nods vigorously. "Trussed it and everything." She carries plates over to Emmett and her guests ­ hot chicken sandwiches on rye with cheese, lettuce and tomato. God, I wish I could eat that. I approach Bella at the stove where she's loosening as much meat as she can off the bones with her fingers. "Hey." "Sleep well?" "I didn't know you were coming over." Bella winks. "I was down here the whole time, you hermit." Behind me, Emmett makes an inarticulate sound of pleasure and says that Alice's sandwiches are fucking awesome. Damn it. I lean in to speak quietly, "Did you make anything I can eat?" It's cool if she didn't; I have leftover soup in the fridge and yogurt too. 283

"Of course I did." Bella opens the fridge and takes out a cereal bowl with a layer of cling wrap over top. I don't recognize the contents, but it's pretty chunky. Bella gets two plates down from the cupboard and reaches past me to grab a foil-wrapped package from the side counter. The foil package turns out to be a round loaf of very pale bread. It's still warm. Bella cuts off four slices and sets them up to make sandwiches. "What's in that?" I ask when she uncovers the cereal bowl. "Mostly chickpeas, with some carrots and other things." Bella takes the small amount of dark meat she set aside from the chicken and begins to shred it between her fingertips. She drops it in with the chickpea mess and mixes the whole thing together with a fork. A serving of chickpea salad goes onto each of the plates, and she closes it to make sandwiches. Bella cuts the crusts off one. She can see I'm worried. "It's rice bread; very easy on the stomach. I made it this morning," she says. "You've handled chickpeas before, and you're okay with semi-solids now. And the chicken is in small chunks. Chew it slowly." She picks up her sandwich and takes a bite. "Let me know if I made the relish mild enough." "What?" "I made extra-mild relish to go with the chickpeas." She made relish? What is she, eighty? Bella smiles and tells me she left a jar of it in the fridge, in case I like it. I can't believe she remembered. I only mentioned relish in passing, weeks ago. I pick up one half of my crustless sandwich and inspect it. It looks reasonably edible, except that it's solid. I hate getting sick, but it's even worse in front of company, and there are three guests in the house. Bella picks up our plates and carries them into the living room away from the others. How did she know? She sets the food down on the coffee table and takes another bite of her sandwich. "Just try it," she says. "If you don't like it, don't swallow." I suck it up and try a small bite. The bread is soft and bland, which is perfect for me. The chickpeas fall apart easily as I chew, and I don't even notice the shreds of chicken. I can see the relish in the mix ­ little flecks of orange and green ­ but its taste is nothing more than a sweet kick to balance the richness of the chickpeas. I can chew it thoroughly without being overwhelmed by the taste. "It's good." Bella beams at the compliment. I hear an unfamiliar laugh in the kitchen that must be him, but it doesn't bother me so much at the moment. I keep enjoying my sandwich ­ the simple fact that I can eat a sandwich again, and that it sits comfortably in my stomach without making me sick. It takes me thirty minutes to eat it at my slow pace, but at the end I'm pretty damn proud of myself. "Thank you." "I'll leave you the rest of the rice loaf. It makes pretty good toast. There's some low-sugar jam in the fridge with the relish." "When did you make all this?" Bella shrugs. "When I had the time." She stacks our empty plates and says, "I was going to give them to you Wednesday before last, but...I sort of blew it." "Oh." She shrugs again. "You have it now." Bella looks uncomfortable with this line of conversation. It makes her vulnerable. So I take a turn, because I owe her: "I'm weaning off Oxy." My stomach is feeling better, but it' a tough process. I haven't even told my siblings. I don't want to worry them, in case I have to go back on the drug. "You're ready for that?" 284

"We'll see." Bella nods understandingly. She gets it. She always gets it. "Let me know if you need anything." "I've been trying that, uh, heartbeat thing...to fall asleep." "Is the pain worse then?" "At the end of the day. And when I first wake up. Lying still for so long..." Bella nods, but I'm not sure she's really listening. She's got that very thoughtful expression in place. "Have you tried rosemary tea?" "What?" "It's good for joint pain and circulation." She smiles weakly. "Did you make that for...her? When she wouldn't take painkillers?" Bella nods. "Lots and lots of tea. Rosemary, sage, yarrow.... It was all in her garden." She stands up suddenly to clear away the plates. "I'll write down how to make it. Maybe your mom will help you with it." She leaves before I can say anything else. I sigh and wait a few seconds before getting up to follow. She must have told some wild lies to her old therapists, because even a touch of the truth is enough to upset her. Tomorrow is going to be...interesting.

Sunday

Mom drops me off at the Swan house bright and early. Chief Swan is polite, if not exactly friendly, and I have a feeling he would be a lot less welcoming if my mom wasn't with me. Bella is wearing a skirt "because it's church." She looks pretty but miserable, and Chief Swan is wearing a nice jacket, which makes me think that the skirt wasn't her idea. We take the cruiser to Port Angeles. I'm made to sit in the back, and I think Chief Swan gets some kind of perverse pleasure out of watching me in his rearview mirror. It's a long drive, and we don't even have the benefit of music to make it go by faster ­ since conversation is out of the question ­ Chief Swan keeps the tuner on the local news and traffic station the whole time. I can't wait to get out of the car when we get to St. Brigit's parish. It's an older church, built from chunky grey stones with a green copper roof. A steeple with a bell stands at the head of the nave, and the heavy wooden doors are open to welcome parishioners. Then I see the sign beside the door welcoming us on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Port Angeles. "I didn't know you were Catholic," I whisper to Bella. "We're not," she answers without bothering to lower her voice. "Charlie's nominally Lutheran, and I'm a heathen." I've only been to a Catholic church once before, when Carmen had her confirmation and invited a few friends to the party. Every church is different, but the bones are much the same: the columns, the elaborate altarpiece, the stained glass windows and carvings of saints along the walls. As we enter the foyer the old lady ahead of us dips her fingers in a bowl of water and makes the shape of a cross in front of her chest. Chief Swan doesn't imitate the gesture on his way past the water bowl, but Bella shrugs and gives it a try. We find a pew and Chief Swan takes a moment to inspect the kneeler curiously. I guess it's been awhile since he was in a church. I'm not sure what to expect. In the back of my head I think of when the pope's funeral was broadcast on TV, and there were a lot of old white guys in robes swinging censors and wearing funny hats while chanting. I wonder if there will be any of that here. As it happens, there is. The organ in the balcony starts up with an opening hymn and a guy dressed 285

in black comes down the aisle swinging a censor. The smoke smells nice at first, until it's everywhere, and then it's choking. He's followed by four alter servers and a priest in a green robe, carrying a fat leather bound bible. There's a lot of ritual at the front before we're allowed to sit down. It seems pompous and excessive, and when it's all done they still keep us on our feet. The opening prayer is in Latin and fuck me, why did I agree to come to this? Within twenty minutes, I'm glad I wasn't born into a Catholic family. There's a lot of singing, chanting, repeat-after-me, hand gestures, and we move so often you'd think the priest was trying to keep us awake by force. Stand, sit, kneel, stand, kneel again! We're told to "give each other a sign of peace," whatever that means, and Bella gets a weird look for giving an old lady the live-long-andprosper sign. The three of us stay in the pew while the rest of the crowd lines up for communion. I'm pretty sure you have to be a member to receive it, which disqualifies our little group. "How much longer, do you think?" I whisper. Bella can only shrug. Thankfully it isn't too much longer. We kneel, then sit, then kneel one more time, and then we stand and sing one last hymn while the priest and his entourage file out the back. I'm happy to be free until I realize I'm not ­ therapy starts now. Fucking hell. The "youth group" as it is so wittingly called, is held in the parish hall next to the main church. It's a rectangular building that looks like a bare reception room, the kind that businesses rent out for weddings and occasions. There are about twelve folding chairs arranged in a circle. The group leader, a guy in his mid-twenties, sits across from the door with a few pamphlets and a bible in his lap. I hope he doesn't quote from that too much. Bella and I take seats a few spaces away from him, but not directly across. If we're in his direct line of sight he might pick on us to share. Bella scoots her chair so close to mine we're practically touching. The other kids give us weird looks for it, but Bella pretends not to notice. I should be good at dealing with stares by now, but I'm not. The group leader, Jim, welcomes us all and starts the meeting off with a prayer "that we learn to accept ourselves and others and to become better people in Christ." This whole thing sounds wildly optimistic. "Let's all introduce ourselves," he says, and we go around the circle. I feel like I'm in fucking kindergarten. "It's nice to have new faces here," Jim says to Bella and me when we introduce ourselves. "Oh, I'm not really 'here,'" I tell him. "I'm just supporting her." I point to Bella and she elbows me. "He is not." Jim smiles and kindly ignores this irregularity. "What brings you here today?" Bella and I stare at each other with a mutual expression of You go first. Neither one of us speaks, and after the silence gets awkward the girl across from me asks, "How long have you been in treatment?" I wonder if I could get away with punching a troubled Christian girl in the face, because I sure as fuck want to. It's none of her fucking business. I stand up to leave and Bella grabs my arm. She pulls me back down to the chair so hard I almost fall into her lap. "He's in remission," she says stiffly. "And my grandma bled to death in my arms." That's a nice, tidy way to abbreviate murder into something people can stand to listen to. She gives Jim a hard look and he moves on to the other group members. 286

One of these is a recovering user. He makes himself seem pretty badass, but then it turns out he just liked to smoke a joint or two on the weekends before he saw the light, and who hasn't gone through that phase? One of the girls is here as part of bereavement counseling. She lost her brother in a drunk driving accident. The boy beside her as bullying issues ­ and no wonder, 'cause he's got victim written all over him. The guy next to me introduces himself like he's at an AA meeting, except he just says, "it's been thirty-four days" without specifying what he's free of. "I think he's lying," another boy pipes up. Jim gives the kid the eye and says we don't belittle our fellows here. Bella leans past me and asks AA Boy what he's thirty-four days clean of, and this stellar specimen of human intelligence replies that he's overcoming a crippling addiction to pornography. Bella gives him the look I so desperately want to. "Really? Isn't watching that stuff just a regular hobby for teenage boys?" Jim chimes in with some points about how pornography and the watching thereof violates the temple of the body. He even pulls out a few bible passages to support his argument. "So, what are you into?" Bella asks. "Solo? Doubles? Fetish? Gay? Personally I think RedTube has gone to shit these past two years. Their search engine is so annoyingly glitchy and there are too many skinny little white boys just jerking off in front of a webcam." Jim cuts Bella off before she can say more. "Let's not discuss this in any further detail. We're all very proud of Greg for overcoming his addiction." "Yeah, overcoming," Bella whispers. "Coming over and over and over..." I try not to laugh so Jim won't call on me, but he does anyway. "I suppose congratulations are in order," he says. "Remission. That's a big step." And you, my dear sir, are a fucking joke. "Yeah." "May I ask what type of cancer you had?" "No." My abruptness doesn't bother him. Jim's voice goes all gentle and he asks, "So what brings you here today?" Bella did, but apparently that's not a viable answer. Bella notices my hesitation and slips her little hand into mine. "Bereavement," she says. Jim turns to her. "For your grandmother?" "Not me." Bella nods to me. "Him. It's like that line from Arnold, "Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born, With nowhere yet to rest my head, Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.'" Clearly the quotation of a work non-biblical throws Jim. "The old him is dead. The new one is in transition. Grief is involved." Jim turns his benevolent gaze on me. "Edward, would you say that's a fair assessment?" Yes, but that doesn't give her the right to answer for me. "She blames herself for her grandma's death." None of them know she really killed Elsie, but that's beside the point. Jim is mildly amused by the way Bella and I contribute each other's issues to the group instead of just dealing with our own shit. "Clearly the two of you are very close. It's obvious you have a real connection." His eyes flit to where our joined hands rest on my knee. Bella and I don't say anything. "How long have the two of you been friends?" 287

We both have to pause to think about that. The answer seems ridiculously short: "Three months." The short length of time surprises Jim, too. "Well, it's clearly quite a bond." He asks some more questions about Bella, some of which she answers herself, but I end up fielding all the personal ones. Bella deals in facts ­ it's been more than two years since Elsie died. She had lung cancer. She died of internal bleeding. The emotional shit ­ that Bella and Elsie were close, that she still carries a lot of guilt and self-loathing, are things she doesn't want to talk about, so I do, because this is shit that Jim needs to know if he's gonna help her. "Is there anything you'd like to share, Bella?" Jim offers. She declines, and the floor goes to the girl whose brother died. She's clearly been here before. She's good at the whole personal sharing thing ­ she's got a whole monologue of her feelings prepared. My ass is numb from sitting by the time we break. The session ends with another prayer, and we're all free to go. Most of the group hangs back, waiting to talk to Jim one-on-one or to say goodbye to other group members. Bella and I just leave, back to the main church building to find Chief Swan. The sanctuary has emptied out. It's just a long, tall hallway with colored patterns on the floor from the stained glass. I'm looking around for Chief Swan when Bella suddenly grabs my elbow and pulls me through the door on our left. The space beyond the door is dark and cramped. We're in a confessional. Bella wraps her arms around my middle and squeezes, hard. "Thanks for coming." I hug her back. The top of Bella's head fits right under my chin. "You're welcome." Her hair is so soft. "You had to pull me in here to tell me that?" Bella shrugs. "I didn't want Charlie to catch me touching you, heaven forbid." I snort and point out that if her dad sees us leaving a confessional cubicle together, he's probably going to think we were making out in here. We could... Because talking about her dead grandma always puts girls in the mood, dumbass. Bella lets go the hug and steps out of the confessional. I follow her out into the aisle to continue our search for Chief Swan. He's not in either of the side of the chancel or in the little side chapel dedicated to St. Brigit. We don't find him until we pass by the parish office, and Bella spots him through the window in the door. He's in conversation with the priest, and looks very troubled. "Fuck," Bella mutters. Her shoulders sink and she turns away. It doesn't take much to figure out that she's the cause of her dad's worries. Bella marches away from the office, out the nearest door that leads away from the parking lot. I'm not sure she wants company right now, but I follow her anyway. We're barely ten feet beyond the side door when she stops dead and stares at the cemetery behind the church. "I didn't know they had a labyrinth." She points to the center of the cemetery, to a paved space surrounded by shrubs and four benches. It looks like a place where people can congregate before and after burials. "A what?" Bella takes the gravel path up through the cemetery, right to the edge of the paved platform. It's red paving stone inlaid with grey to form the shape of a circular line pattern with a flower in the center. "They put a maze in a graveyard?" "It's not a maze, there's only one path." Bella points out the solitary entrance to the symbol. "You're supposed to walk it and meditate." "You've done it?" "I've seen it done. Discovery channel ­ there's a famous one of these in France." 288

"You want to try it?" Bella walks around the edge of the platform to the spot where the circle opens to let people in. She just stands in front of it for awhile, eyes closed and absolutely still. At first I think she's trying to block out some unpleasant thought or psych herself up for this, but as the seconds wear on it occurs to me: she's praying. I don't know why, but it's strangely intimate to watch her do that. Bella opens her eyes and steps onto the platform. It's by impulse that I reach out and grab her hand, and she doesn't seem to register it ­ she just pulls me along with her, onto the narrow path that winds back and forth on itself. The path takes us around the center of the pattern, around the flower, back and forth, back and forth. The outside of the circle seems wide and cold, like we're so far from the goal ­ from the end ­ on the fringes of the path. I keep looking down, tracing how far we've come and how far we're going. Bella doesn't look the same way. Her head is bowed and her eyes unfocused, tracking the path and nothing more. She doesn't look at the distance, at the forward and backward motion of it all. Her pace slows to a crawl. I walk close behind her. Bella still has one of my hands in hers. I rest the other on her waist, moving forward with her. Every step forward is a step back, the way the path winds back on itself over and over. It's like walking through a mind full of indecision. When she stops I don't immediately realize why, and then I notice the scalloped tiles. We're at the end, which isn't really the end. The center of the circle is a spot big enough for three or more people to stand. The hand I rested on her hip slips around her front in a gentle hug. She lets me hold her, and it feels good. "What now?" Bella sighs. "We go back." She turns to face me with a peaceful smile. "You lead." The fact that the returning path is the same but opposite throws me off the whole meditation thing. It's harder to lead than it is to follow. I reach a hand back to where I can feel Bella walking behind me, but she doesn't take it. She puts her little hands on my shoulder blades. It's a gesture both comforting and encouraging. I feel her forehead come to rest against my back. "Are you ever afraid to touch me?" I murmur. I know it's not easy for her to look at me sometimes, even though she does it anyway. Her touch, though, makes her more unique than she must realize. "Never." I can't feel her forehead against me anymore. Her hands move down from my shoulders, running slowly to the small of my back and returning to their original spot. Her fingers trace the backs of my shoulders, down my arms, and in between my fingers. We end the walk hand in hand. Kiss her. "How do you feel?" I look up to find Jim sitting on one of the benches around the platform, watching us with a smile. "It's very centering, isn't it?" How long has he been sitting there? "Yeah," Bella says. "It is." Jim gives us this cheeky grin and says he should have known we'd walk it together. "Friendship is a blessing. A bond like yours is an uncommon gift from God. I'm glad you seem to treasure it." What the hell are you supposed to say to that? "I've gotta go find my dad."

Monday

Four. Fucking four. Four fucking opportunities to kiss her this fucking weekend and I didn't take a single fucking one. But why the fuck should I have? 289

No, I'm not stressed. Why do you ask? "This is nice," I tell her. "Uncomplicated." Bella throws a potato chip a few feet from the picnic table, just to see what happens. A seagull snaps it up and waddles off with the potato clasped in its beak. Bella's got her blank look on, but that doesn't mean she doesn't know what I'm talking about. "Yeah, uncomplicated..." She puts a chip in her mouth and chews slowly. "We should take bets on how soon karma is going to fuck it all up again." I scowl. Pessimism is my job, damn it. The bell rings and Bella stands up to go back inside for biology. I don't immediately follow, and she actually stands and waits. "Dipshit," she says when I take too long, "that was the bell." I get up and we trudge back to the main building, taking our sweet time about it. "What does your dad think of your filthy mouth?" "Hates it." Bella crumples her empty chip bag. "I had to watch my language around the Jesus freaks yesterday. It fucking sucked." I tell her she can pay me back for having to endure that shit this Thursday at five-thirty. "Bring your album," she says. "We can dissect your life this time." Fuck no.

Tuesday

Fuck you, Oxy. The hot water on my shoulders feels nice. It soothes the worst of the joint pain and relaxes me. I don't want to get out of the shower. I know it will start to hurt again once the warmth is gone. I'm used to a dull ache, but weaning off the painkillers has just made me more aware of the soreness. I come out of the bathroom to find a steaming mug of tea on my dresser. Thank you, Mom. I'm slowly getting dressed, muttering "fuck Oxy" under my breath at every painful step, when Dad knocks on my door and asks if I need help. "A little stiffness is to be expected," he says as he helps me on with my shirt ­ my shoulders are too stiff to lift my arms over my head. "Don't tell Alice and Em, okay?" He's reluctant to agree, but he does promise not to say anything until I decide to tell them myself. I don't want to worry them. They've gone through enough because of me.

Wednesday

I wish my sister were gay. Maybe then I wouldn't have to stand here and listen to this dumbfuck talk about Radiohead like they're the best fucking band in the world. Emmett is running late, and unfortunately he has the keys, so Alice and I are stuck waiting by the car for him. That's when Mr. I Have A Hard-On for Radiohead came up and started talking to her. Apparently, Alice's favorite band is suddenly Radiohead too. What a fucking coincidence. "I liked you better before you sold your soul for tail," I tell her as we drive away. She turns around in the front seat and asks, "Have you kissed Bella again yet?" She smirks wickedly and I know she's got some evil plan to use her ill-gotten Polaroid shot against me. I give her the finger and Emmett chimes in with surprise, "You kissed Bella?" "On the porch," Alice answers. 290

"Wow." Emmett shrugs with her eyebrows. "I thought she had standards." "Shut up."

Thursday

I pick Bella up at five, as per our agreement. As we pull away from her house she reaches into the backseat and picks up my backpack. "What are you doing?" Bella openly and unabashedly rifles through my backpack. "We need to make a quick stop first," she announces. "What?" "You were supposed to bring the album, remember?" I was hoping she had forgotten all about that. "We don't have time to go back to my house." "That's okay," she says. "Let me take your car after we get to the hospital. I'll get the album from your house and come back to meet you." Because I'm just going to let her poke around my bedroom when I'm not there. Even if Mom or Alice were with her, they would still give her too much information. "Next time, okay?" The dialysis clinic is on the fourth floor of the hospital, next to the fracture clinic. Bella keeps her hood up as we walk to the elevators, trying not to be seen and roped into volunteering by any of the people in green vests. She relaxes when we get in the elevator, but hunches up again as we cross the fourth floor to the clinic. "Hey," Bella says. She gently tugs the side of my jacket to get my attention. "I'm gonna go to the washroom first. I'll meet you in there." "Sure." It's not until I'm taking my jacket off for treatment that I realize it doesn't feel right. One of the pockets is empty. Bella stole my keys. She's gone for thirty minutes; long enough that I'm already hooked up to the dialyzer and mad as hell when she gets back. And she doesn't just have the photo album with her. She's got the album, a shoebox, and a black note-calendar in her backpack. "Did you raid my fucking room?" "Yeah. Jeez, you keep a lot of porn," she says. Her sarcasm isn't improving my mood. I hold out my hand for the keys and she drops them in my palm without apology. "I could have reported the car stolen, you know." "My dad would have answered the call, you know," she says with a cheeky smirk. "Does he know you're a pickpocket?" Bella laughs and says it's a skill she acquired on the sly. I guess that's code for "in the nuthouse." She swears she doesn't do it often. "On to business." Bella unlocks the brakes on the side table and brings it in front of my recliner. She pulls her chair up to the other side, like she's a cop about to interrogate a suspect. Her evidence comes out piece by piece: the album, the calendar, and the shoebox. The opens the book covers first. "Help me understand this timeline," she says. "The calendar doesn't start until your first round of chemo. When were you diagnosed?" "July first." Eleven days after my birthday, barely a week after we moved here. Mom took me to the 291

doctor to get antibiotics for a persistent, fatiguing bug, but things didn't go as planned. Bella skims Mom's medical notes on each page of the calendar. She knows what most of them mean, which is sort of sad, but it's also nice because it means she has fewer questions. Most of them revolve around the calendar and the album together. If there is a significant event on the calendar but no corresponding photos in the album, she questions it relentlessly. When did I become unable to tolerate solid foods? Was I able to go to school in between treatments, or was I kept in isolation because of flu season? "Why do you want to know all this?" It's moot to tell her these inconsequential details. It has no bearing on the here and now. "I'm trying to figure it out," she says. "Figure what out?" She lifts her gaze from the calendar and looks me straight in the eye. "At what point you died." She's good at that ­ at knocking the breath out of me with five little words; at knotting my stomach in fear. "Something in you did die," she insists. She takes a Polaroid from the first page of the album out of its sleeve and sets it on the table, and then places a much later photo beside it. "It's not even the same person." She points between the two photos. In one I still look human, sitting for my first treatment and masking my fear with anger. In the other I'm stripped apart and I don't have the energy to be angry anymore. I'm just weak and vulnerable and alien. Bella puts the photos back in their places. "I'm going to kill you, you know." Is there anything left to kill? Or is she hoping I'll start bleeding internally? Bella closes the books and turns to the shoebox. Why did she have to bring that? "I found this on your shelf," she says. Bella sets aside the lid and peers at the contents. It's just a collection of junk ­ old hospital bracelets and a broken keychain and some stray photos from before. Bella picks up one of the bracelets and smiles. "We have the same blood type." "Fascinating." She rolls her eyes at my sarcasm. "You've got a birthday coming up." "In two months." She smiles at me and taps the yellow strip on the bracelet. "You were a fall risk?" "I was weak." She puts the bracelet aside and starts flipping through the loose photos. Most weren't taken by me or my family. They're shots I've been given from friends over the years. Bella stops on the one that Tanya took last June, right before I moved away and my biggest problem was that I was pissed off about moving to middle-of-nowhere Forks. My piano had already been moved to the new house along with the rest of the large furniture, so my usual method of venting frustration was out. Alice got tired of me moping around and bugged me to take her to the beach. A few friends came along. In the photo I'm giving Alice a piggyback ride and she's got her hand stretched out to pass a water bottle to Carmen. "You look happy," she says. I was, sort of. It was a good day when that was taken. Mostly. I can't help but remember what a whiney little bitch I was that morning, ignorant of the fact that my life was beyond wonderful. I'd never even considered that I would get sick. That shit happened to other people, not to me. I'd never been so lonely I felt hollow. I'd never hated to look at myself. I'd never traded insults with someone I could barely stand because it felt better than being invisible. Bella looks at the photo so intently. I wish she wouldn't. I looked human in that picture ­ just an average teenage boy, walking on the beach with friends. I am never going to look like that again. "I was already sick when that was taken." She looks up at me like she was just a million miles away. I point to the bottom of the photo, where a smattering of bruises showed around my knees and 292

calves. Just little marks, so innocuous on their own, but hinting at something deadly and destructive under my skin. I try to take the picture from her and she holds it out of my reach. Bella gives me a stern look, like she thinks I've got some nerve to try to take it from her. She sits back in her chair, out of my reach ­ tethered as I am ­ and studies it some more. "I might need to be alone with this photo." I realize that my mouth is hanging open when Bella leans forward and makes a jerking motion in front of my lips, like she's feeding me cock. I shut my mouth and grab her hand to make her stop. Fuck. She did not just say that. "You're a little red," she says with concern. And how am I supposed to react to a girl telling me that she wants to masturbate to a photo of me in a bathing suit? Jesus... Bella slips the photo into her back pocket ­ oh God ­ and turns back to the shoebox. Would it be cheeky or just plain perverted to ask for something of hers in return? Bella picks a folded white laminate sheet out of the box. Fuck. She unfolds it and finds my wellworn speech card. For a long time she just stares at it without saying anything. "Was it the vomiting that made it hard to talk?" she asks quietly. "All that acid?" "No." "Radiation?" she guesses. I nod. She smiles softly and traces the most worn-out box on the whole card, the one that says I need a hug. "We had one of these for Grandma, too," she says. "She couldn't talk long because she couldn't get a good breath. But after she was put on the ventilator we had hand taps." She pokes my palm in demonstration, tapping out a pattern to communicate. "She could still do that after her eyes swelled shut...in her clearer moments, anyway." "Did she say much?" It seems tragic, having to tap your last words into someone's palm. Bella picks up my hand where it rests on the arm of the recliner and makes me point my index and middle fingers, like a peace sign. She folds her fingers with mine so it looks like two arms wrapped over shoulders in a hug. "That's how we said 'I love you.'" It's late when I get home, but even though my body is tired my mind is wide-awake, thinking of Bella's questions and the things she told me. We made plans to carpool to Kate's show tomorrow. I don't know what story she's going to tell her dad to get him to let her go, but knowing Bella, I'm sure it'll be a masterpiece of fiction. As I hang up my jacket I hear rustling in the pocket. I reach inside to find that Bella has put her sly fingers to work again. I pull out the photo of me at the beach, the one she slipped into her back pocket earlier like she wanted to take it home. She gave it back. She was just teasing me. Of course she doesn't want... Fuck. I thump my head against the coat rack. Thank God I didn't make an ass of myself by asking for something of hers.

Friday

Emmett will take any excuse to get out of Forks for the weekend. He agrees to drive Bella and me to Seattle, and plans to crash at Rosalie's place that night. It takes about five seconds for Alice to start whining about being left out of the road trip. "Can I come?" 293

"No." "Why not?" "Because there's no way in hell I'm taking you to Connelly's." She lobbies Emmett next, but he's not interested in bringing her to Rosalie's house. Alice's energy should never try to be contained in the wax museum the Hales call a home. The results would be disastrous. Alice makes a point of stomping around in a foul mood and blaming us for dooming her to a weekend in Forks. But she comes around. She even packs us snacks for the road. When we pull up in front of Kate's house, she's visible in the front window, yelling so loudly I can hear her from the car. She's arguing with her brother about waffles, as far as I can hear. Bella smiles and says, "She's exactly like I pictured her." Kate answers the door while yelling at her brother to take the dildo out of his ass, it's choking out the single surviving neuron in him. Then she turns to me and says, "Holy fuck you brought her." "Not by choice." "Isn't he a stick in the mud?" Kate says to Bella, and folds her into a hug like they're old friends. I'm a little bit glad that I'm the de facto DD tonight. If I'm sober I can keep a better eye on Bella. Kate tells her that her bedroom is the third door down the hall, and that she can store her backpack in there. Bella is gone for all of three seconds before Kate turns to me and mouths, "Holy fucking shit!" "What?" I whisper back, when I really should be telling her to shut the hell up. "How have you not tapped that yet?" "Will you shut up?" "If you're not gonna, I will." "She's straight." "You've asked?" No. "Yeah." I'm pretty sure. "Every girl is straight until she's not. Or until she's had a few." Kate winks. God no. "Don't you fucking dare." "Why not? You're done with her." Bella comes back from the bedroom and Kate nonchalantly wraps an arm around her waist. Neither of them has any idea what they're in for. "Let's get you a drink," Kate says, and steers Bella away to the kitchen. "Be gentle with her," I call after them. "Fuck off, Edward," Bella scolds me. Kate laughs. "That's the spirit!" Kate likes Bella. She really likes Bella. Kate has a type, and this wouldn't bother me precisely ­ Bella is a big girl, perfectly capable of turning away unwanted attention ­ except for the fact that Bella seems to like Kate too. "How long have you two known each other?" "Three years," Kate says. We're sitting around her kitchen table, doing a little pre-drinking and eating junk food. Kate casually lifts her feet and rests them on Bella's lap, like they're intimate friends. Bella doesn't push her away. "Kate's a dyke." She laughs at me. "Only sometimes. I keep trying to convince him to try queer," she points at me, "but he won't do it." 294

"Can't be room for much else with that stick up his ass." Did Bella just insult me? "Oh, the stick," Kate groans dramatically. "He's better when he's a little tipsy." She winks at Bella. "He's a touchy drunk." "I am not." "You should have seen him the first time he got wasted," Kate tells Bella with a giggle. "It was at our friend's birthday party. He got shitfaced and insisted on cuddling with the cat all evening. Just laid there on the floor, stroking this mangy old cat." She turns to me. "You remember?" I need to put a gag on her. Kate mimes stroking a cat in her arms. "So soft...so fucking soft..." The two of them have a good laugh at my expense. It would be easier to get back at Kate if she had any sense of shame whatsoever. "Want to know what Kate did at that party?" I ask Bella. Kate squeals happily before I can finish and announces that she fucked our friend Alex from music camp at that party. "He was a good first time fuck," she says fondly. "Smallish dick, not too intimidating." She winks at Bella and the two of them snicker. "She's leaving out the part where she somehow ended up in bed with his friend an hour later." Kate has absolutely no shame. "Now he was a good second fuck," she says. "Nice and thick." She finishes her beer and gets up to stand behind Bella's chair. "Can I do your hair?" She's already got her fingers all through it, giving Bella a sensual scalp massage. Bella smiles and tells her to do whatever she wants. God, I hate Kate. She's such a talented slut. If I were a smoker, I'd be sucking them back right now. I lean against the car door, fidgeting a little as I wait for the girls. The three of us are taking Kate's Gremlin. The others are carpooling with Tanya in the minivan, and we'll meet up in the parking lot. The plan for the evening is a vague distraction from the slowly-but-surely-driving-me-insane fact that Kate and Bella are getting changed in the same room right now. For all I know Kate could already be-- Don't even think it. I breathe a huge sigh of relief when the girls come out of the house. They don't look like they've been screwing around. Kate is in a suitably slutty outfit for the stage, carrying her violin case. Beside her, Bella looks like the portrait of conservative ideals. She's not wearing a skirt, which relieves me from the worry that Kate will try to get a hand up there. She's wearing heels, which could be a problem because she's a klutz, but they're not that high so she probably won't do herself any serious damage. Kate's top is barely worthy of the name, but Bella's is...huh. Tits. Be cool. Tits. Bella's tits. Moron. God bless cleavage. She'll catch you staring. "Cullen." "Nothing." Kate and Bella give me a weird look. Kate is the first one to dismiss my awkward outburst. She tosses me the keys and climbs into the car. Bella is nursing a smirk. Fucking hell.

295

Kate's band doesn't go on till one. We arrive at eleven and she uses her connections to get us in through the stage entrance. We don't even get carded, and the only weird look I get from the guy who lets us in has nothing to do with my age. We store our jackets with the band's instruments to save waiting in line at coat check. "I think you'll like this place," Kate says to Bella, and links their arms. The others just take it for granted that Bella likes girls as we head out into the club. Just another one of Kate's love 'em and leave 'em conquests. My only comfort comes from knowing that Bella isn't into that sort of thing. I hope. Kate buys Bella a drink, and Bella lets her. Kate gets four of her favorite lemon drops and makes Bella do one shot with her. I expect her to wince ­ those things are fucking sour ­ but Bella shoots it without trouble and moves on to her own whisky sour. "I figured you for a rum and coke kind of girl." Bella looks at me like she just remembered that I'm here too. "If you can't drink the hard stuff without sugaring it up, you shouldn't be drinking." "Amen." Kate clinks her shot with Bella's glass before tipping it back. I don't think she was really listening to what Bella said, because when she's done with her lemon drops ­ sugared up liquor ­ she orders a Mike's Hard Raspberry. "I like sweet things," she says to Bella, and brushes her hair behind her ear. I have a strange urge to snap Kate's wrist. The urge only becomes stronger when Bella angles her body toward Kate, away from me, and says she likes things that hurt going down. Kate chuckles lowly. "I heard you were a tough one." Her hand slips around the side of Bella's waist, lightly fisting her top. "That shirt really does look good on you." Of course it does, she's not wearing anything underneath. And you just idly noticed that. Fuck off. Kate leans in a little more, putting her body so close to Bella's it's a wonder she doesn't just grab her by the cunt and save time. She leans in for a kiss and Bella turns her face away from Kate to sip her drink. "You like to dance?" she asks. "Mmm-hmm." "I fucking hate it." Kate laughs and tugs at Bella's hand. "Let's see if we can't change your mind." Bella doesn't even put up much of a struggle. She goes to the dance floor with Kate, abandoning me at the bar without so much as a word. Fucking hell. I buy a bottle of water and go to find Carmen. Hopefully she'll have found a booth where I can lurk and hide and spy on Bella. You forgot your creepy trench coat at home. Shut up. Carmen does have a booth, and with her are two people I vaguely recognize from high school. Both of these twits have underage stamps on their hands. Carmen reminds me of their names and we do the obligatory social niceties. I have no interest in conversation, and the three of them quickly realize it. I'm largely left to my own devices ­ watching the dance floor like a stalker ­ while they chatter. Kate is a fucking whore. Great musician, loyal friend, but a fucking whore ­ one that is currently grinding on my thoroughly straight friend whom she knows I have a thing for. So what if Bella and I didn't go anywhere? It's the principle of the thing! You don't hook up with your friends' hang ups. Bella doesn't really know how to dance. She mirrors Kate's motions, grinding back and forth with her and exchanging hand placements ­ a grip on the neck, on the hip, on her ass for Christ's sake. 296

"Edward. Edward!" Carmen flicks a bottle cap at my face. "What?" The word comes out harsher than I intended. Carmen nods to the object of my focus ­ Kate, half naked and practically wrapped around Bella. "Are you sure you should be letting her do that?" Carmen asks. "You know Kate doesn't do commitment. If your friend gets attached--" "She's not into girls." Carmen raises an eyebrow and looks over at Bella. "Uh, you sure?" Yes, God damn it. Carmen snorts as Kate sticks her tongue down Bella's throat. Bella doesn't pull away. She doesn't even wince. She just tilts her head to that perfectly accessible angle, closes her eyes, and relaxes into the embrace. I feel cold. She likes it. And her hand is on Kate's neck...where she used to rest her hand on me. Kate's hands are around the back of Bella's hips, under her shirt, touching skin I never got to touch. "Hey," Carmen calls my attention back to the table. She sets a shot glass full of amber liquor in front of me. "I know you're not supposed to, but in extenuating circumstances..." It's beyond tempting to drink, but it won't solve anything. I don't need to be sick as well as fucking dead inside. I look back to the dance floor, but Bella and Kate are gone. I turn all the way around in my seat, being wildly obvious in my attempt to locate them. Carmen gestures to the stage door, tucked in the corner behind one of the massive speakers. Oh fuck. Why would Bella go off with her alone? Kate really has no shame. I leave the booth and wade through the crowd to the other side of the hall. Security is shit here, and I walk right through the unmarked stage door without anyone noticing. Backstage, it's all smoke and gloom. The faggots on stage are using a fog machine, and the wings are choked with vapor. Beyond that, where the stairs lead down to the rooms below stage, the smoke from cigarettes and other pleasures hangs heavy in the air. I know where Kate will be ­ where she always stages her trysts ­ so I head straight down without bothering to check the wings. There are six rooms under the stage: an electrical room and storage closet; three dressing rooms; an equipment closet; and a bathroom. One of the dressing rooms is open and Kate's drummer is smoking like a murder suspect. "Have you seen Kate?" He looks at me with a hard eye and says, "Don't tell me she's fucking you now." Shit, so she's already fucked and tossed this drummer. He'll quit the band within the month. "No." Tried and failed that. I leave him to make love to his ashtray and head down to the smaller dressing rooms at the end of the hall. The one on the left is occupied by a sleeping piece of jailbait, probably waiting for the band on stage to come back so she can blow the lead singer and glom onto their five minutes of fame. I try not to wake her as I leave. The other dressing room is empty. I check the bathroom, but it's empty too. The electrical room is locked for safety reasons. The only room left is the equipment closet where they keep spare chairs and microphone stands and crates of liquor. The light is on when I open the door, but it looks empty too. Then I hear whispers. "Do you like that?" "Don't talk." I look around I stack of chairs, into the far corner of the room where crates of vodka are piled high. Kate's back is to me, but I can see that the neckline of her dress is around her waist. I can't see much of Bella behind her, but I can see enough of her edges to tell that her shirt is off too. I feel sick. 297

"Put my hand where you want it." Don't give her your hand. "Touch me." Kate's moan is a little too theatrical and I want to scream. Her voice has that warm, seductive quality that I know too well. "Why are you stopping?" "Who the hell do you think you're fooling?" It's quiet, but I can hear the ice in Bella's tone. She's pissed off. "What?" "If I tell you that you're hot and that you fuck like a porn star, will you stop imitating one?" Kate snorts. Her hands come up to the wall on either side of Bella's head, closing her in. "He said you had quite a mouth." "Shut yours and get on with it, or I'm leaving." "Mmm, big threat." Bella moves to leave and Kate shoves her back against the wall. Fucking dyke ­ fighting one second and making out with her the next. She's palming Bella's tit like she owns her. I can't take another second of it. I turn to go. "Did you find her?" Carmen asks. I pick up my bottle of water and try to drink, but the fluid gets stuck in my throat and I cough. I don't have to say anything. The look on my face says it all. Carmen offers me another shot. "No." It is twenty long fucking minutes before Bella reappears at the stage door. It's after midnight; Kate and her band have to start preparing for their set. She didn't even do Bella the courtesy of walking her back upstairs after taking advantage. Her hair hangs over her face. I can't read her expression. She heads across the dance floor, toward the center of the mob and the mosh pit at the front. She's trying to get lost in the crowd. I get up before I lose sight of her altogether and weave through the press of bodies toward her. Bella bumps up against my front before she realizes it's me, and then she looks up at me with the deadest eyes I've ever seen on a living person. My hand fists the front of her shirt. It's fucking loud and hot and crowded and I don't know which to do first ­ comfort Bella or crack Kate's fucking skull. "I need a little air," I say. "Come with me?" She touches my neck. I foolishly dare to hope that it's affection, but her fingers still on my pulse point. She thinks I need air because I'm lightheaded. If I weren't sick, she wouldn't go with me. "Okay." We grab our jackets from backstage and go out to the alley. The pavement is wet, but the rain has stopped for the moment. I lean back against the brick and Bella amuses herself by kicking stray pebbles into the nearby sewer grate. "Having a good time?" Bella nods and kicks another stone. "So you like Kate?" "She's okay. She's funny." "Was she telling you some good jokes backstage?" Bella smirks at me, but her eyes are still dead. She doesn't seem upset that she got caught. I'm not even sure if sorry that she did it ­ she shuts down like this when she feels anything in abundance, be it good or bad. She is single, dipshit. She can fool around if she wants to. 298

"I've heard better." Bella says. "The tongue ring adds a nice touch, though." I resist the impulse to add I know. "Do you play both sides?" "Not really." She shakes her head. "I just sort of...go with it. I wanted to see what she would do if I let her." "What if she did something you didn't want to do?" Bella shrugs. "It's a new experience, I suppose." Something in my question makes her even more distant. What is she thinking? What did I remind her of? "Hey." I reach out and touch her jacket. "Come here." I pull her in and she leans against me in a one-armed hug. She's slightly damp from exertion and she smells like the inside of the bar. Her hair smells like Kate. "I shouldn't have let you go off with her." Bella pulls away from me. "You don't protect me." Her words sound like both a declaration and an accusation. I want to protect her. She needs it, even though it might pain her to admit such a weak thing. "Are you okay?" I ask. "I'm fine." I can tell she's going to stick to her story no matter how hard I push, so I let it be. "I've been thinking." "Uh-oh." "Shut up." Bella taps my forehead and tells me not to blow a fuse. I grab her hand and hold it. "I've been working on this whole forgiveness thing. Trying to wrap my head around it." She needs to know that she has someone in her corner ­ that I'm trying to stop judging her, trying to understand her. And that I won't let her go off with someone I know is bad news ever again. Bella's face goes blank. She steps away from me and takes her hand back. "Forgiving me for my grandma, you mean?" I nod. "That's a venture you'd best stop before you start," she says. "You'll get nowhere." "Just because you didn't..." "Fuck off." "I don't want to hate you." I should be mad at her right now. Two weeks ago she was kissing me. This week she's screwing around with my friend in the basement of a rotting concert hall. I should be royally pissed off that I meant so little to her, but I'm not. I'm...hurt. And I think she is too. "That's not the same as forgiving me. You don't have to do that. I wouldn't blame you if you never did." I put my hands on her shoulders and she tenses like she thinks I'm going to hurt her. I wouldn't. I simply pull her close enough to speak into her ear. "I still like you." Bella doesn't say anything back. No argument, no agreement, no disagreement or affirmation... Just silence. "I hate it that Kate was all over you, and that she took you backstage alone. It was driving me fucking crazy earlier knowing that she was watching you get dressed." "Helped me get dressed," Bella corrects me. My hands tighten around the shoulders of her jacket. "Were you going to let her get you drunk?" Bella doesn't answer. Is that a guilty silence? The unpleasant thought creeps into my brain: that Bella might have done all this on purpose, knowing it would bother me. She only met Kate a few hours ago, and it's a pretty low thing to screw the friend of a friend. 299

"Are you screwing around with my friend to piss me off?" Bella tries to pull away. "Because it's all about you, Cullen." "Answer the question. Are you trying to make me jealous?" Bella blinks at me like I'm not speaking English. "Jealous of what?" "I still like you." She must have known; God... "So?" That's all she has to say? I tell her I like her and she says so? Bella shrugs my hands off her shoulders. "Don't you fucking dare." "What?" "You're gonna complicate this. Isn't it enough that we're talking? That we're friendly? It's okay that you still resent me for what I did, everyone does, but don't twist that around and try to make something out of it. It's not gonna work." I let her go. "Forget I said anything." She takes a step back from me. "You're clearly over... whatever we did. Go tongue-fuck Kate a little more. Put your face between her fucking legs; I don't care anymore." Bella blows out a long breath. "I've been stealing kisses in your sleep." It's moments like these where people either find God or they don't ­ the times when the breath slips out of you and you can't get it back. Time slows and then stops entirely. Nothing matters except that the impossible is suddenly possible, and it's necessary to rearrange the entire universe around that newfound fact, piece by piece. Awe reigns alongside disbelief, and when it all comes back into focus, you realize that you've been staring at her like a fucking imbecile for an awkward length of time. Bella turns to go back inside. I try to tell her to stay but all that comes out is an incoherent and very undignified squeak. If she notices, she ignores me. The fireproof door shuts behind her with a heavy thud. "Fuck!" Sure, now you can talk. Do I go after her? What the fuck do I say? I open the door and rush into the dim, foggy pass between the door and the stage. I'm short exactly one plan and rational thought is a stretch at the moment ­ I just have to find her. God has a sense of humor. I run smack into Kate on the stairs. "Have you seen Bella?" "Uh..." "Since you fucked her," I clarify. Kate points to the stage door over her shoulder, and I leave without another word. I know where Kate lives. I'll deliver hell on her doorstep later. I burst through the stage door, only to run into a wall of bodies. It's almost one and Connelly's is at capacity. The dance floor is packed and the people in the booths and at the bar are crammed in cheek to jowl. I press through the crowd, using my unhealthy weight to my advantage as I slip through the cracks. I wish Bella wasn't so short ­ I can't see her anywhere. The churning motion of the crowd shifts as the band's last song winds down. Their set is done. Some people head to the bar, cutting me off, and the rest stand in groups waiting for the next set to start. It's hard to weave through a crowd that is stagnant. But it is easier to spot the very petite girl I'm looking for. I take a step toward her just as the lights go up again and Kate draws her bow across the strings, teasing the audience with a blast of sound. The responding noise level from the crowd is almost as deafening. Kate chuckles into the mic. "This one is for everyone who's got the balls to go after what they want." The drummer breaks into a relentless rhythm, and the chaos begins. It's beautiful. So is she. I grab Bella by her nearest arm and pull her against me. She looks genuinely frightened. 300

Why? Even with my mouth next to her ear, I have to yell to be heard over the music. "Why the hell didn't you wake me up?" Bella shrugs helplessly. "We're fucked up, Edward." Yeah, granted, but every couple needs their thing. I bend down and give her a fully conscious, articulately sensory, much desired kiss. It's a brutal sort of relief to do this with her, because I'm barely satisfied before I want more. Bella is a very giving woman.

301

20. May 11 to 15

Saturday

I wake up with an arm pinning me down across the back of my shoulders. Jesus Christ ­ I put her to bed on the couch last night with a roll of paper towels and a bucket, just in case, but it turns out Kate has a great sense of geography when she's drunk. She found her way back to her bed ­ with me. I shove her arm off and get out of bed. It's eight-o-clock and the house is still quiet. I head to the bathroom and hear snores from the other two rooms. Everyone else is still asleep. Edward slept in Kate's brother's room last night, on the bunk beds. I poke my head in on the way back from the bathroom, just to check on him. We didn't say much last night. There wasn't much to say, and I didn't know how much he knew about Kate and me. We stayed with the crowd where it was too loud to talk, but he was greedy for small touches and signs of affection. After the show things kept coming up ­ finding the people we came there with, talking Eli out of that one last vodka shooter, making sure he got home in one piece... Kate's brother is sprawled out across the lower bunk on his stomach with the comforter tangled around his legs. He snores like a cartoon bear. I have to stand on the lowest rung of the ladder to get a peek at Edward. He's in his usual sleeping position: curled up on his side with his chin tucked to his chest. He still has his hat on, but that's not such a shock. He has a roommate while we're here, and he doesn't like to be seen bald. I lean up on my toes to touch those pouted lips and he stirs. Edward takes a sleepy swipe at me and grabs the front of my t-shirt. "The fuck?" he mumbles. His eyelids flutter as he tries to wake up. "You're supposed to wake me up for this stuff." "I did." Edward tugs harder on my shirt, pulling me closer. I stand higher on the ladder, but I can't go much higher without hitting my head on the ceiling. I crane my neck, trying to hunch over. "Lay down," he says. "Geez, I thought you were an honor student." "Oh shut up." I lay down beside him and he wraps an arm around me with a sigh. For the next half hour, I'm his human teddy bear. I make myself some toast with jam for breakfast. I need something sweet to kill the taste of stale whisky on my tongue. As I wait for the bread to pop up I think about the contents of the fridge. The only thing in it that's safe for Edward to eat is yogurt, but I don't want to just write him off with a crappy, boring breakfast if there's something I can throw together. I sit down at the kitchen table, wishing I'd brought some honey or rice bread for the road. As I brood and chew I feel an arm wrap around the front of my shoulders in a hug. It's not Edward ­ her hair tickles my neck and she smells like the bar. "Aren't you an early riser," she says sweetly, and kisses the back of my head. Why the fuck is she still touching me? I told her last night that it was a one-off. "Oh, I'm just full of tricks," I tell her dully. I don't want to tell her off when I'm a guest in her house, but if I bore her she may lose interest and leave me the fuck alone. Kate chuckles and nuzzles the back of my head. "So I've heard." What the fuck did she hear? "Want me to show you how to make a newspaper into a weapon?" How's that for a fucking trick? Maybe I'll demonstrate how to draw blood and break bone with it, too ­ she can be the dummy. Kate laughs and heads to the fridge. She says she doesn't think it's possible to make a newspaper 302

dangerous. I resist the urge to look around the house for one to prove her wrong. I get up to wash my plate without a word while Kate pours a bowl of cereal. I'm wrist-deep in suds when she comes to stand behind me, hugging me and resting her chin on my shoulder. I want to elbow her in the gut. "Do you not grasp the concept of a one night stand?" Kate sighs in my ear and pets my hair. "Do you like him?" Now I really want to hit her. "He's not ready for anything serious, you know," she whispers. "So much of him has changed, he's not ready for...intimate relationships." In my short seventeen years, I've met a lot of people who were full of shit. People who, by all rights, should have had it coming out their ears ­ who I should have been able to smell a mile away. But Kate's insightful pile of bullshit makes me wonder if she even knows him. I bet he's never told her a secret. I bet she's never been allowed to witness a weak moment. My hand stills on the dish sponge. "What do you see when you look at him?" "Oh, he's still in there," she assures me. "But he's...different." No. He's dead. "Kate?" "Yeah?" "Get off me before I shank you with a butter knife." She chuckles like I'm joking and kisses me on the cheek before departing with her cereal. I rinse my dish and put it in the drying rack, eager to go get dressed ­ to get out of her company for five minutes. When I turn around he's standing right there, leaning against the kitchen wall with his arms folded. He doesn't look happy. "What time do you want to get out of here?" he asks. I shrug and tell him it's up to him. Edward gives Kate a scathing look ­ which she misses ­ and says the sooner the better. "I'll get dressed." I head down the hall to the bedrooms and Edward follows me. I assume he's going to get changed too, but before I get to Kate's bedroom door he grabs me by my upper arms and holds my back against his front. "Don't listen to a word she said," he says in my ear. "She's..." "I wasn't gonna." Edward blows an angry sigh out through his nose. "How long were you standing there?" He ignores my question. "What do you see when you look at me?" Edward whispers. I roll my eyes. "Do I really have to tell you again?" His grip loosens a little and I walk away from him, into the bedroom. I lock the door behind me. I just want five minutes of peace to get dressed. He knows what I see. I've been telling him for months. He just never listens. Emmett has good taste in music. He keeps a steady stream of Fort Minor, Eminem and jazz tracks I don't recognize coming through the speakers the whole ride home. I sit up front with him. I figured it would be less awkward this way, and Edward has the whole back seat to lie down if he feels tired. There isn't much conversation on the way home. Edward constantly has his phone in his hand, texting. When I look back at him in the mirror he's sometimes pensive, other times pissed off, and just before he conks out with his head against the window he looks sad. We stop for gas in Port Angeles. Emmett sends me inside for snack food while he fills the tank and Edward sleeps on. When I come back to the car I set the food up front and climb into the back with 303

Edward. It's not good for his neck to be slumped over like that. Very carefully, I unwrap the seatbelt from across his chest and loosen the band across his hips. He's still not that heavy, and it only takes a slight pull to get him to lean toward me. I make a pillow on my lap from my folded jacket, and Edward snuggles in without ever really waking. His phone buzzes on the seat and I pick it up to switch it off. He doesn't need to be woken up right now. Then I get a devilish little thought: perhaps I should record an annoying ringtone for him, like he did for me. I have no idea how his phone works. I scroll through the menu, looking for a settings or voice recorder option. His text message inbox has a lot of unread texts in it. It keeps flashing red, begging for attention. I open the inbox to get the alert to stop flashing. It's fucking annoying. All his most recent messages are from Kate. I think of the way his face looked an hour ago ­ this probably isn't a pleasant conversation. I open the earliest message, just to see. Relax, we hardly even did anything. I get the feeling she's talking about me, and the next message confirms it: Just a little making out. And fingering. I can almost hear her voice, casually adding that last part like it's no big deal. She wasn't even that into it. I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually wanted to be physically close to someone in that capacity. I didn't want Kate. I just wanted...something. Don't give me that shit, you said you were done with her. I still can't believe he's not. Last time I talked to you, you were planning to stop being friends with her. I think back to Kate's phone message. She sounded like she thought Edward and I were no longer on speaking terms, and that she was extending the olive branch to me in spite of that. I wonder if it says something about Edward's relationship with Kate that he tells her about his anger but not his happiness. Her next message is a little mean: Well did you really think you'd get anywhere? I stop reading and shut off his phone. What the fuck does Kate know? Emmett drops me off at home and I very carefully slide my legs from under Edward's head, trying not to wake him. He sleeps like a bear in January. I thank Emmett for the ride and he tells me to come around again soon. "Mom misses you." I promise to come tomorrow, maybe after I'm done pretending for the people at Group. As they pull away I take out my phone and send a text to Edward. He'll get it when he wakes up. I'm sorry I didn't say no to her. Charlie is out when I get home. He left a note on the counter about going down to La Push to help Billy fix a wiring problem. The note doesn't say when he'll be home, but that doesn't surprise me. Home improvement projects have a way of getting out of hand, and even if they do finish today, Charlie will probably stay for a beer and an hour or two of Sports Center. I unpack last night's clothes and take advantage of having the house to myself. I send Mom an email with the week's news, playing up the part about how therapy was so fucking life changing and I can't wait to go back and work through some of these issues. Let her have a little hope. Charlie doesn't come home for lunch, and I don't know if he'll be here for dinner, either. But I feel like cooking, so I start preparing lasagna and zucchini fritters. I'm shredding the zucchini when my phone vibrates. I walked in when Kate asked you if you liked me. Fuck, so he saw her wrapped around me. He heard her say that he's not worth having a relationship with. No one needs to hear that. It hurts like hell to be told that, no matter how many times it's said. 304

I didn't answer her because it's none of her business. I do like you. Thanks. Maybe he was better off not answering that message, if that's what he's going to say. He'd have thrown an insecure shit-fit last night if I'd said 'thanks' to his admission. I'm trying, okay? I want to make peace with what you did. You're an idiot. He doesn't have to forgive me in order to be civil to me. As far as I'm concerned, even trying to make peace with my past is a waste of effort. Optimists usually are. That's why I'm a pessimist. I almost smile. Never change. That dork sends me a smiley face in reply. He's got a sentimental streak and it's freaking adorable. I set my phone aside and put the pasta on to boil for lasagna. Tonight I'll make it Charlie's favorite way: with spiced ground beef and mushrooms in the spinach. I labor over the lasagna for half an hour before my phone moves again. Can we 'see each other' again? I stare at the screen for so long I forget the pot on the stove and the water boils over. "Shit!" I move the pot off the burner and turn the heat down. Most of the noodles are still salvageable. Only the two that were closest to the bottom are burnt. I wipe the water and starch film off the stove and turn back to Edward's message. How the fuck do I answer it? We need to talk about this. Okay. Can I come by tonight? Not tonight. I don't feel well. Maybe tomorrow, okay? Do you need anything? As long as I'm cooking, I could make something for him and take it over to his house later. Rest. Tomorrow, okay? Maybe I should be grateful for the delay, because I don't know what the hell I'm going to say to him.

Sunday

I love Mrs. Newton. She calls early in the morning and gets me out of group therapy by asking me to cover a shift. Charlie isn't happy about me missing a group session, but I point out that I need the money for college and he grudgingly agrees to let me skip a week of therapy. I think he just doesn't want to sit through mass again. I text Edward to let him know about the change of plans, but he doesn't reply. He probably just read the message and rolled back over to sleep. I have the opening shift at the store with Mike. Business is slow for the first hour, so I busy myself with sweeping and mopping the floor. Mike gets the task of washing down the display windows with glass cleaner. I think the Windex fumes make him a little high, because when I come back to the front to put the mop away he looks completely spaced. I feel bad about the way I talked to him last week, when it was just the two of us working. I took my own shit out on him and aside from a tendency to flirt, he's a pretty good friend. "Hey, Mike." He looks up from the front counter. "Yeah?" "You want to do something sometime?" Mike smiles. "Like what?" 305

"I dunno. Maybe we could get a group together to go to the movies?" "What do you want to see? I'd love to go with you." I don't miss the fact that his wording leaves out any suggestion that this will be a group outing. I suggest a goofball horror movie and tell him I'll invited Ben and Angela, and he can invite who he wants. Mike shrugs. "We could just go the four of us. That's almost a full car. Double dates are fun, but any more than that is a crowd." I should have known he would assume. "Oh, this isn't a date," I tell him as politely as I can. "Come on, Jess is my friend. What would she think of me if I asked you out so soon after you two broke up, huh?" Thank God they break up every other week. Mike agrees, but I can see he isn't thrilled. He's just telling me what I want to hear. I can't hold that against him. I know what it feels like to spin lies because the truth isn't fit to swallow. I leave the store at five, ready to head home for dinner. I wonder what Edward is doing ­ a persistent thought that has an obnoxious tendency to intrude on my brain ­ and remember our promise to meet and...talk. I sit in my truck and call him, wondering what I'm going to say when we sit down to hash out where we stand. Edward answers the phone sounding completely exhausted. "Hey Bella." "Are you okay?" "Fine. What's up?" "I just got off." "You what?" "Easy, pervert. I just got off work. Can I come over so we can talk about...yeah?" "Um, now isn't a good time," he says awkwardly. "Can we postpone again?" "You're not stalling, are you?" I tease him. He chuckles and assures me he isn't. "I'm just not feeling well enough for company." He apologizes and promises that tomorrow night we'll set time aside to sit down and talk about...stuff. "Tomorrow, then." I intend to hang up, but then he asks me if I've heard Bad Religion's new album. "Don't tell me you have it?" That bastard. We talk about it for an hour, dissecting every song ­ he plays them one by one into his cell mic. His favorite track is "The Devil in Stitches." I like "Turn Your Back On Me." "You're gonna make me a copy, right?" "Already burning it," he agrees. "I knew I kept you around for a reason." He laughs and I look at the clock. Shit. It's almost six. I've been laying across the front seat for too long, chatting the evening away. I say goodbye to Edward and he tells me that I don't have to come with him to dialysis this week, since we didn't go to my therapy together. "Pull your head out of your ass," I tell him. "I'm coming with you." I call Charlie as I drive home to ask if I should pick up takeout on the way. He's already eaten leftovers, and apparently there isn't any of the lasagna left. That was quick. I tell him not to expect me home till late and take the turn off to La Push. Billy is out when I arrive. Jake says he's over at the Clearwater house, talking to Sue and Harry. Leah still isn't doing so well and they're running out of ways to help her. Somehow, the Quileute community doesn't strike me as the kind of people who would ship their children off to reform schools. They deal with their problems person-to-person, as a group. 306

"She's been angry lately," Jake says. "Getting into fights and stuff. She's hit rock bottom and it's made her reckless ­ she's got nothing left to lose." "It only feels that way until you really do lose everything," I tell him. Jake gives me a strange look, but doesn't comment. "Are you hungry?" Jake makes spaghetti with Ragu sauce. He boils the whole package of noodles, which could regularly serve a family of four. Jake eats about three helpings alone. His idea of an appropriate portion for me is enough pasta to make me feel stuffed and dozy. "Leave the dishes," he says. "We'll do them later." We kick back on the couch and try to decide between Asian-language cartoons on channel three and competitive pole vaulting on channel nine. Jake says we might be able to pick up an English cartoon network if we adjust the rabbit ears, but neither of us wants to get up to do it. We're full and sluggish, so we make do with non-translated anime cartoons. Jake starts making up lines for the characters, talking over the voices and being silly about it. He makes me giggle and we start to recreate the whole plotline of the episode: the girl with pink hair is a government agent, spying on the guy with white hair who is actually a rogue alien who just likes to probe people and has lost all interest in his species' mission to conquer earth. The little girl with black hair is his accomplice and is actually a robot controlled by a tiny fellow alien, M.I.B.-style. "So what's their home planet?" Jake shrugs. "Alderaan." "Plagiarist." Jake elbows me. "Shhh! When the cartoon ends we give championship pole-vaulting a try. Without humor to stimulate me and a full belly to make me sleepy, I quickly start to doze. The last thing I remember is the unenthusiastic voice of the sports commentator in the background of my consciousness, and when I wake up I'm no longer on the couch. I'm in Jake's bed, tucked in with the quilt up to my chest. Damn. It's been years since someone carried me to bed. I stretch my legs with a sigh and then something touches the back of my head. Jake pets my hair and asks if I'm awake. "No. Go away." He chuckles like I'm joking and lies down next to me. Next thing I know I'm being spooned and his hair is soft against my cheek when he kisses my temple. Fucking hell, I thought I explained that this shit is off limits... "Jake." "Mmmh?" He runs his hand down the curve of my ribs and hip. His lips are at my shoulder and he's close enough to my back that I can feel his misplaced excitement. I bet he was waiting for me to wake up. Pervert. "We talked about this." "Give me a chance." He rolls me with a hand on my shoulder and before I can tell him to fuck off straight to hell he's got his mouth on mine, pressing our lips together in what I think is an attempt to be passionate. It's not, it's just pathetic. Jake lays his weight in top of me, pressing his cock up against my thigh. I really have to stop fooling around with virgins; they just don't fucking get it. Absolutely no subtlety. I reach down and grab him, hard. The first time he tried this shit, I didn't say anything. But since then I've told him no more. If he's gonna seriously try this with me, I'm going to hurt him and I won't feel bad about it. Turns out he likes a rough hand. He wraps his fingers around mine and makes me grip him even harder. Fucking hell. I twist a little and he snatches my hand away with a soft exclamation. Jake pins that hand near my head and begins to leave big wet kisses down my neck. It's like 307

something out of a bad movie. He rolls his hips against my front, humping me through our clothes, and moans into my neck like a fat man with a hot pie. His other hand slips between my legs, rubbing me through my jeans. Jesus Christ, he's going to try that again, is he? "Stop that." "Is this better?" He moves his hand in circles instead. I can't wait until this country declares open season on idiots. "What do you think?" Jake hitches my leg around his hip and squeezes my ass. I try to kick him, but I can't reach much with my hips pinned down. He thinks I'm leaning into him and starts to kiss me with more 'passion.' He gets a hand up my shirt and I swear, if he starts fumbling with my bra I'm going to lose my shit completely. Jake lifts himself up on his elbows and looks down at me with a weird expression. "I don't have a condom." I put my hand on his shoulders and shove, hard enough that he falls off the edge of the bed with a crash. "Who the fuck said you would need one?" I tug my shirt back into place and get out of bed. "I told you no more of this shit," I yell at him as I storm out into the hall. I need to get out of here. I shove my feet into shoes and grab my purse off the counter. "Bella, wait!" "Fuck off, Jake." "Why do you keep turning me down? I've treated you a lot nicer than your other 'boyfriends,'" he demands rudely. What the fuck does he know about me and my sex life? At least the others asked before they touched me. "I keep turning you down because I don't want you, Jake," I snap at him. I feel like throwing something, but I suppress the urge and head for the door. "I know why your mom sent you here." I stop with one foot out the door. "What?" "I know about your grandma. And the shit you did after. No fucking wonder your mom shipped you off to live with your dad. I bet she thought living with a cop would straighten you out." I let the screen door close. "You don't talk about my grandma." "I overheard our dads talking. Charlie told my dad what you did to her." "You know fuck-all, little boy." "Do your parents not want you to date because of the shit people you got involved with back home? I think they'd be over the fucking moon if you dated someone normal ­ someone your dad knows isn't insane." "Are you trying to talk me into dating you?" I can't believe his sheer idiocy. "I'm seeing someone, you arrogant fucking prick." Jake gives me a skeptical look. "Oh yeah? Who?" It's more of a lie than truth, but I can't let him think he has an opening. "Edward Cullen." Jake stares at me for a few seconds, and then bursts out laughing like I'm a fucking joke. "Edward Cullen? The guy with cancer? Whoa, shit, you are nuts." "Shut your fucking mouth, Black." "And what happens when he croaks? Are you going to completely lose your shit again and hurt your dad?" I really fucking hate Jacob Black right now. To insult Edward is one thing ­ Edward never did anything to him ­ but to suggest that I'd hurt Charlie on purpose is crossing a line. "Edward's not dying," I answer through my teeth. "He's in remission. And you could go out tonight 308

and get hit by a truck ­ and the way you're going, it'll probably be my truck." Jake sneers at the threat. "You say shit about me and Charlie again, you're going to regret it." I give him the finger and turn to go. "Are you gonna kill Cullen too?" Jake calls after me. I don't want to stop, but God fucking damn him for saying that to me. I turn and Jake's got this bitter sneer in place. "I know what you did to her." I drop my purse on the porch and reenter the kitchen. Jake folds his arms as I step up to him, looking down on me with disgust and arrogance. That little shit. I take a swing at his jaw. My whole weight is behind it, and the arc is long enough that he can see it coming ­ and he doesn't even move. My first two knuckles connect with his jaw and his neck twists to the side. What kind of idiot doesn't block or duck? He expects it when I wind up for the second punch, and he lunges at me. Jake shoves me into the counter. He's got his hands around my elbows, pinning my body to the edge of the counter. I'm not above sacking him. My only education is in how to fight dirty. Jake's not a fighter; he leaves his legs wide open for my knee to come up and bruise his balls. He might have the advantage of height and weight, but I've got experience and I know how to capitalize on his pain. Jake lurches and gags as I lower my knee. His grip loosens enough that I can get my arms free, and I shove him back as hard as I can. My leg wraps around the back of his calf, tripping him. Jake hits the floor like a sack of potatoes. The adrenaline has deafened me and all I can see is his smug face twisted up in pain. I take advantage of his prone position ­ sitting on his chest with my knees pinning his elbows down. I knew I loved his long hair for a reason ­ it gives me something to grab as I pull his face in toward every punch. He gets two across the cheekbone and I one across the jaw, hard enough to bust his lip open. My hand is going to hurt like hell when this is over, but right now I can't even feel it. I wind up my other arm to strike the opposite side of his face, and Jake gathers himself enough to flex his arms and throw me off. As I fall on my back to his left I strike out with my foot and manage to land one last kick to the jaw. Jake is up and on me in a second, equally fuelled by adrenaline. He goes for the kill shot. His hand wraps around my neck, squeezing me. He's got me held at arms length, beyond the reach of my fists, and his leg pins mine down. He thinks he has the upper hand. Stupid cunt. I slip my thumb between his palm and my neck, gripping his wrist. My other hand grabs the back of his elbow. I twist his wrist back on itself and push his elbow back in the wrong direction. His shoulder naturally rolls with it and he cries out in pain before his face even hits the kitchen floor. I roll on top of him and put a knee in his back. An arm bar hurts like hell, even relaxed. Jake struggles, kicking his legs and flexing his shoulder. I just push harder. One quick move and I could snap his fucking elbow. Not bad for a little girl. Jake has the nerve to ask for mercy. What does he think this is? High school wrestling? There's no tapping out in this match. "Shut up," I bark at him. I replace the hand on his elbow with my other knee and he cries out in protest. My free hand grabs him by the hair, jerking his head back. His eyes are already bruising and he's got blood running down from his split lip. "Yeah," I snarl at him, "I killed her. So what the fuck do you think I'd do to you?" I throw his arm away and he whimpers in pain. Fucking pathetic. I take one last kick to the ribs as I walk away. Fucking worth it.

309

Monday

I wear a sweater with too-long sleeves to hide my bruised knuckles. My first two knuckles are a little swollen and the tops of my fingers are purple. It's a satisfying mark, because it's the only one on me and I know Jake looks a hell of a lot worse. He didn't even make a mark on my neck when he choked me; his grip was too brief. I can see Edward a few hundred yards ahead of me as I head toward the school. He's the only one in the crowd wearing a hat in May. He's a little hunched today, which could mean anything from pain to tiredness to a particularly cranky mood. Given his new drug regimen, I'm gonna bet on pain. I catch up with Edward at his locker a few minutes later. He looks miserable, slowly turning the dial on his lock and opening the locker. For a moment he just stands there, and then he angles his shoulders, trying to get his backpack to just slide off him. I come up behind him and take the weight of the backpack, easing it off him as gently as I can. His joints must be killing him. Edward looks at me with a forlorn expression. "Thanks." "That bad?" I hang up his backpack and he nods. "I'm only taking half my regular dose, and only half as often." "Withdrawal symptoms?" I ask lowly. Edward shrugs. Some things are too personal to talk about. "Nothing I can't hide," he says. It pisses me off a little that he's hiding his discomfort to keep others from worrying. But he's done it before, and I know how hard it is to talk him out of these asinine ideas. I hand him a mint and head off to class. Edward doesn't show up to lunch, which pisses me off even more because it means he's worse off than he's letting on. I take some of my frustration out on my lunch ­ enough that Angela notices that I'm eating more aggressively than usual. "Just trying to eat quickly. I've got stuff to do." "Studying?" Nope - hunting Edward down in the nurse's office. When I get to the nurse's office, I find her gone. The staff are on lunch break too. I peek behind the curtain at the twin cots and find Edward lying on his side, looking like shit. "Nothing you can't hide, eh?" I tuck the blanket tighter around his shoulders and sit by him, keeping him company and rubbing his back. The pain in his joints is no better or worse than usual, but his stomach is easily upset. He's afraid to eat anything because it will make him sick, and prolonged hunger makes him lightheaded and cold. "Is it nausea?" Edward turns red in the face. "No," he mumbles. One of the more uncomfortable side effects of opiates is constipation. Now that he's on a lower dose, his digestive tract has to reconfigure the whole food processing situation. I go back to the cafeteria and buy him a fruit juice. He can drink, at least, and he needs the sugars. "Does Alice know I'm in here?" Edward asks as he sips. "Probably." Alice is highly attuned to her brother. "I bet she just thinks you're a little tired, though." "Thanks for your help. I'll pay you back for the juice." "Damn right you will." Edward chuckles at my tone and drinks more of his juice. He has to sit up a little to do it because I didn't bring him a straw. He doesn't need to be sucking air back right now. The gas would just be harder on his gut. 310

"Come here." Edward holds out an arm to me, inviting me to sit next to him against the headboard. I scoot over to join him and he wraps an arm around my shoulders. "What happened to your hand?" He picks up my right hand and pushes my sleeve back to look at the bruises. He smiles and asks if I slammed it in the door like the klutz I am, but I can see genuine worry in his eyes. "I beat the shit out of a my friend." Edward's eyes widen. He pushes both my sleeves up to my elbows, looking for hidden bruises. I tell him I'm fine but he insists on checking. "Who were you fighting with?" "Jake. You've met him." "That kid?" His voice pitches up. "He's got at least thirty pounds on you, Bella." "More like forty." "Please tell me it was play fighting." He still inspects my head and neck for hidden bruises. He wouldn't believe me if I told him that Jake didn't land a single blow. "No." Edward glares at me. I feel like a little kid in trouble. "What were you fighting about?" "He was talking shit about my grandma. And you." Edward swallows. "What about it?" He pulls my sleeves back down, hiding the bruises. "That I was an idiot to get close to you. And he knows what I did to her ­ he acted like I should be grateful that he wants anything to do with me." Edward murmurs my name and kisses my hair, like I'm a child telling a parent about a nightmare. The arm around my shoulders squeezes me tighter and he tells me that I'm better off without Jake. "I might not be able to go with you on Thursday after all. Once my dad finds out I'm going to be grounded till Christmas." "Even though Jake started it?" "I threw the first punch. And I almost broke his arm." Edward looks so surprised that I can't help but laugh. "I also threatened to run him over with my truck." "Jesus, Bella." "You'd do the same if someone said shit about your family. He said I was crazy to hang out with you because you could die tomorrow and I'd go insane again." Edward wraps his other arm around me in a soothing hug. "Now when you say you almost broke his arm..." "I definitely sprained his wrist." "Good girl." Edward kisses my head again. He says he's sorry I hurt my hand and thanks me for sticking up for him. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "You're an idiot." He laughs. I think he's the only one who can take my insults in stride. 'Fuck off' is a nice euphemism for 'I love you,' but so few people understand that. Edward's nose brushes lightly across my cheek. It's like he's asking for a kiss. "We still need to have that talk." He sighs like I've just told him to go clean his room. "We only have twenty minutes left. We won't have time to finish talking about this if we start now." "Fine. Tonight?" "I have a doctor's appointment." "Honestly? Or are you stalling again?" 311

"You think I'd lie?" he says with a smirk. "Really, I do. Cancer is one of those things that you have to check up on from time to time." "Are you worried?" "No. I'm feeling better." He smiles as if to prove it. It's total bullshit. He's blown me off for days because he's been feeling so poorly. I refrain from pointing out that feeling lightheaded and shitting his guts out are hardly big improvements on his physical condition. He probably already knows, whether or not he wants to admit it. "Fine. Tomorrow." Edward finishes his juice and lies down to rest before the bell rings. I lay down with him, lending Edward a little bit of warmth. The blanket on the cot is pretty threadbare. "I'll try to make it through biology," he promises as he lays his head on my shoulder. His arm is around my middle, mooching warmth. "If you can't I'll walk you back here." "Thanks," he murmurs. His cheek feels so cold against my collarbone. He needs to eat something, soon. I consider swinging by the cafeteria one more time before biology. He can sip another bottle of juice in class. Edward shivers slightly and I rub circles on his back, trying to warm him up. If he stays here instead of going to biology, he might as well steal the blanket off the other cot, too. Edward lifts his head and looks up at me. His expression is troubled. I adjust the blanket to warm him further but he leans away from it ­ toward me. Edward kisses me very softly, just like the first time on the porch. We were supposed to talk about this first... The door of the nurse's office opens and Edward takes his sweet time pulling away. I have to put a hand on his shoulder and push him back, and by that time it's too late. The other student in the door is watching us with red cheeks. "Um...is the nurse here?" she squeaks. I don't know this girl, but I've seen her before. She's a ninth grader, skinny and still suffering through the first awkward stage of puberty. "She'll be back soon." I get off the cot and swat Edward away when he reaches to take my hand. "Are you sick?" She bursts into tears. How do I know it's a Monday? I guide her to a chair and make her take deep breaths. I have to ask for her name ­ it's Amber ­ and she looks perfectly healthy to me. The nurse's office is pretty sparse, but all the basic equipment is here. I ask if she came here for an icepack or bandage and she just sniffles and shakes her head. "Anything I can offer you till the nurse gets back? Water, maybe?" I pass her the Kleenex box to wipe her nose. Amber takes out a sheet of notepaper and writes the problem down. She's too embarrassed to just say it. I go to the supply cabinet and dig through the drawers of gauze and towels. The school must keep some feminine supplies around... The only pad I find is thick enough to soak up the entire yearly rainfall of the Olympic peninsula. I can't believe any woman could bleed enough to need this and still survive. I give it to Amber and she takes it into the washroom, still sniffling. "She okay?" Edward asks from behind the room divider. "Shut up, Edward." Amber calls through the door, "I have a question." She wants to know where she's supposed to stick the adhesive tabs on the sides. I can't believe that's an actual question and want to tell her to take a wild guess, but that would be mean. I answer her question and Edward snickers behind the divider. Jackass. Amber emerges a few minutes later looking flustered. I have to assure her that the giant pad isn't visible through her jeans to get her to calm down, and send her away with the rest of the Kleenex box. 312

Poor kid. Edward gets up and shuffles around to the other side of the divider, weary but smiling. We have to leave for class soon. "Do you think she'll tell anyone what she saw?" He nods to the cot behind him. "No. Then she'd have to explain what she was doing in the nurse's office to begin with." He nods, satisfied that I'm probably right. Amber will be too embarrassed to admit that she was ever in here, let alone that she saw anything. "We'll talk," he says. "Promise. Tomorrow." "I believe you." I finish my homework when I get home, and when I head downstairs to make dinner I find company in the house. Jake is at the kitchen table, sporting a black eye, a fat lip, a tensor support, and talking to Charlie like everything is just fine and dandy. They're discussing plans for an overnight fishing trip with Billy and Mr. Clearwater. I pull my sleeve over my blue knuckles. "Hey Bella," Jake says. He sounds so cheerful, like I didn't beat the living shit out of him last night. "What happened to your face?" I challenge him. "Boys being boys," Charlie says with a smirk. Jake has already lied to him. "Do you not know how to block a punch?" Jake gives me a look that tells me not to push my luck. I suppose he thinks I owe him now, since he lied to my dad and covered my ass. No harm in being delusional. I fry up some fish for supper. It makes Charlie happy, and after the dishes are done I don't linger. I don't want to give Jake any opportunities, so I head out. It's as good a night as any to volunteer at the hospital. I spend my evening sanitizing the children's toys from various waiting rooms around the hospital. It makes my clothes smell like bleach, but I enjoy it. Alone in the back room with the plastic toys and my buckets of water and bleach, there's no one around to see me play with toys way beneath my age level. Duplo blocks are awesome. I envy the little kids who get to play with this stuff in public. "Pick up, it's me." I lift my head and look at the clock. It's one-o-clock in the fucking morning, and I really, really have to change that ringtone. And I actually mean it this time. I pick up the phone. "Mmm-ff?" "Help me." The words are an open plea. I'm wide-awake and sitting up with one foot on the floor before I realize I've moved. "What's wrong?" "It's not working." The pain in his voice is so palpable it gives me chills. "What's not working?" "Heartbeat," he answers shortly. Oh God, he's hurting. "Take another dose." He still has an open prescription for Oxycontin. He can take as many as he needs until he's ready to be off painkillers, which he obviously isn't. "Can't. Not till five." "Take it. You're in pain ­ you need it." "I'd have to wean off it again." He blows out a sigh that breaks with a wince of pain. I hang my head and curl my knees to my chest, trying to protect myself from something intangible. The darkness creeps around me anyway. I've had this conversation before. "Then you'll wean off them again. You need it now. Take it." Before I lose my mind, please. "Please, just help me. I don't want to take ­" "I can't help you." I want to I want to the pills are right fucking there take them don't make me 313

watch you hurt... One time she passed out from the pain and I thought she was dead. "There's no shame in it." My voice cracks as I repe